Courthouse workers protest

Recent sewer line break called one of many health problems they face

April 14, 2007|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,Sun Reporter

Waving `Respect our Safety' signs and relaying horror stories involving a ruptured sewer pipe, about 40 protesters gathered yesterday outside the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse and called for a new building to house the city Circuit Court.

It was a familiar cry for the courthouse workers, who have complained for many years about rodent infestation, plumbing problems and poor air quality in both Baltimore Circuit Court buildings, which sit on opposite sides of the 100 block of N. Calvert St. They say those conditions have led to skin rashes, allergic reactions, migraine headaches and possibly cancer for some workers.

On Tuesday, a sewer pipe burst in the sub-basement of Court House East, disrupting water service and forcing Administrative Judge Marcella A. Holland to close the building. Three civil cases and one murder trial were interrupted by the closure. The building reopened on Wednesday after service was restored.

Arthur "Pat" Kelly, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3674, which represents about 200 court workers, said employees were not released from their jobs until about four hours after the pipe burst.

"People should have gone home. An hour, two hours is long enough to allow someone to remain in that situation," Kelly said. "Ultimately, we want our people out of these mold-infested and asbestos buildings. We want them to build a new courthouse. Any other courthouse in the state, you won't find these conditions."

Kelly directed the most pointed criticism at Holland, who Kelly said is unresponsive to the union's complaints about the working environment. Kelly said the union is "at war" with Holland and her staff.

AFSCME Local 3674 sent a letter yesterday to Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, who appointed Holland, to intervene and take a more active role in the health conditions at the courthouse.

"The attitude and poor communication between [Holland's] office, the city and the union in particular neither serves the employees of the Circuit Court nor the public who comes in here every day," Kelly said.

Holland said she doesn't have the authority to handle many of the union complaints and has referred workers to the city, which is responsible for maintenance of the circuit court buildings. She said she has had little communication with the union since then.

"I haven't met with them in months," Holland said. "I'm out of the loop. The union has made more complaints about things that I don't know about. They don't tell me what's going on."

Holland defended the decision to keep the courthouse open for several hours after the pipe broke, saying the severity of the problem was not realized until later.

"You can't let people go home because water goes out for 10, 15 minutes," Holland said. "It's just like when water goes off in your house. You don't know how long it's going to take. I have a mandate to keep courts open until an issue arises that affects health."

At yesterday's rally, about a dozen workers said they have been treated this year for illnesses they contend came from hazardous conditions at the courthouses. One worker pointed to what she said was a spider bite on her leg.

Truemenda Mobley, a court clerk for 13 years, said she has a thyroid condition. "And I never had a thyroid problem in my life."

She said that after the pipe broke, conditions in the restrooms deteriorated because the toilets couldn't be flushed. "You couldn't wash your hands. And the odor was all in the hallway," Mobley said.

Conditions in the buildings have sparked numerous demonstrations in recent years. Six years ago, employees staged protests and threatened legal action because of the alleged health problems they blamed on the courthouses. City officials responded by monitoring air quality, cleaning dirty vents and removing rodent feces and trash.

City officials say a new building would cost at least $500 million and would likely involve a city-state partnership.

"It would be difficult for anybody to do anything right now," city public works spokesman Kurt Kocher said. "The revenue just isn't there."

Circuit Court Clerk Frank M. Conaway Sr. met with workers at the end of the protest, telling them pushing for a new courthouse remains a priority of his.

"I've been speaking out for a new courthouse for the last nine years," said Conaway, a mayoral candidate. "It's very unfortunate that the employees had to endure so many hours without water."

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