Who knows what evil lurks ...

March 12, 2006|By C. FRASER SMITH

As mayor of Baltimore, William Donald Schaefer was famously impatient. "Do it now" became his mantra, his byword and his creed. And you couldn't argue with his success. Think Inner Harbor, World Trade Center, Convention Center, a Hyatt Hotel and gritty Baltimore transformed into a tourist destination.

Mr. Schaefer was a magician. He willed his city back to life. He made Congress and presidents notice and try to copy some of his more successful efforts.

It was, therefore, unseemly for this newspaper and this reporter to say, "Wait a minute; you haven't been playing by the rules. You've been using certain unorthodox procedures to (almost literally) create the money you need for some projects the banks won't touch.

"In fact, you've created your own city-run bank with assets of $100 million or so. And who knew the city was a bank? Two smart but shadowy and anonymous men knew, but the citizens didn't know and various city officials didn't know."

A series of stories (some said an interminable series) in this newspaper laid it all out.

Not long afterward, Mr. Schaefer addressed an annual meeting of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He and his trusty band of do-it-now-ers created a play with Mr. Schaefer, as always, in the starring role.

When it came time for him to make his remarks, he stepped smartly from behind the drapery and, as I recall, stood quietly as the assembled businessmen and women were getting the joke.

The series of stories had been billed as an exposM-i of the city's hidden governing apparatus - its "shadow government." And there stood Mr. Schaefer in his Shadow costume: elegant, black Western-style hat and flowing cape - the shadow incarnate. His audience howled, laughed and applauded.

But what was so funny? Some of the maneuvers employed by the shadow government had the potential to disadvantage many of the businessmen and women in the audience. Not all of the works contracted by the shadow had been subjected to the usual competitive bidding rules.

It was not clear how some of the loans had been secured: whether, for example, the city's full faith and credit had been pledged in the event of a failing project. There had been very little, if any, public discussion. "Do it now," not the city charter, was the operative rule.

I started to work on these stories because I was denied access to various records by officials of the Peale Museum, then a city agency. Or so I thought. In short order, I was instructed that the museum was a quasi-governmental agency - part city, part private.

It was private, I thought, when its directors wanted something to be held out of public view. There was nothing necessarily nefarious. Public officials and those who volunteer to help with government business often believe public scrutiny can be hurtful.

The light of day, it is said, has a deleterious effect on the affairs of men and renaissance cities. That ethic rears its shadowy head constantly and should be resisted by law and by the pesky newspapers that are the public's representative in such matters.

Mr. Schaefer told me in a later interview - after his Shadow turn - that he was running a business. No, I said, a government. There's a difference. We agreed to disagree.

It has been merely weeks since I last heard the former mayor invoke the "shadow government" series. For some time, he alleged that the newspaper had imputed some illegal act to him and his team. It wasn't and isn't so.

The stories were really about the importance of process, playing by the rules so that, for example, the question of who backs the big loans - and who gets the big loans - is openly discussed in some forum open to the voters.

That process was too laborious for the "do it now" man. I understand that. I even applaud that. I see the results. In the end, whatever the rules may be, we're in the hands of the men and women we entrust to manage our affairs. Mr. Schaefer deserved our trust.

But even when these affairs are in the hands of impeccably honest people, the picky, process-driven news gatherers can't relent.

If the democracy isn't open, it may not be a democracy for long.

C. Fraser Smith is senior new analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays. His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

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