It's about time

November 08, 2006

The Maryland Court of Appeals has unmasked the Baltimore Development Corp. for what it is: a city agency operating as a nonprofit corporation. Last week's court ruling should give the public greater access to the workings of the city's often-secretive development arm - and it's about time. Similar quasi-public organizations working on behalf of Anne Arundel, Howard, Prince George's and Charles counties should heed the court's call - the state's open meeting and public disclosure laws pertain to them, too.

The ruling arose out of a legal challenge to a 2004 meeting held by the BDC on revitalizing a swath of the city's west side known as the superblock, perhaps the largest urban renewal project since the redevelopment of the Inner Harbor. Under the plan, a host of properties and a few small businesses would be forcibly removed - and compensated for their holdings - to make way for a new, residential-retail complex. Carmel Realty Associates and eight others wanted to redevelop their properties and stay put. But the BDC board decided behind closed doors to select one "key developer" to take on the superblock project.

The appeals court ruling against the BDC could further delay development of the superblock. The case has been sent back to the Baltimore Circuit Court to address the property owners' request to void the BDC's choice of a developer. But the immediate impact of the court's ruling is its determination that the BDC - a city-funded agency established in 1991 whose board is appointed by the mayor - is a public body.

The BDC, as the city's primary player in economic development, has significant influence over Baltimore's changing landscape and the development deals fostering the change. It has recommended use of one of government's greatest powers - the authority to condemn and seize property. It helps negotiate public financing for projects, incentives that can be lucrative for well-heeled developers. Those are just a few reasons why the BDC's decisions should be subject to public input and scrutiny - and why the court's decision was right.

BDC officials have argued that opening up its process could impede the city's development progress. But that's nonsense. Maryland's public information and open meetings laws provide enough exceptions - too many, in our opinion - to allow the agency to protect the integrity of financial information and other sensitive issues before it.

It won't be business as usual; it will be business in line with the public's right to know.

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