Job fair called off over fliers

Event canceled over Mitchell's involvement

May 18, 2007|By John Fritze | John Fritze,Sun reporter

In the latest mysterious episode of this year's mayoral race, Baltimore officials abruptly canceled a city-sponsored job fair scheduled to take place yesterday after mayoral candidate and City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. attempted to distribute a flier promoting the event.

Though the flier included no mention of his candidacy - and would have been distributed by his council office, not his campaign - an official in Mayor Sheila Dixon's administration said he believed that Mitchell was attempting to politicize the job fair and decided to postpone the event until next month.

Since announcing his candidacy in January - and challenging Dixon, who will also seek election this year - Mitchell has faced a long stretch of bad luck. Shortly after starting his campaign, he was ousted as chairman of the council's powerful taxation committee. Weeks later, he was forced to go on unpaid leave from his job at Harbor Bank under circumstances never fully explained.

Mitchell has never blamed Dixon directly, but he has insinuated political shenanigans are involved. For her part, Dixon has adamantly denied involvement in any of Mitchell's woes, including the cancellation of the job fair, and her allies note that it would not be in her interest to be perceived as sabotaging her chief rival.

"I would hope it's not a pattern," said Mitchell, who sent a letter to the city's housing department this week asking for an explanation for why the event was canceled and noting that his office had worked with the department on similar events in the past. "The timing is suspect."

The job fair was to take place in Mitchell's council district, along Pennsylvania Avenue, and was being organized by the Western Community Action Center, which is part of the housing department. Housing officials said they believed Mitchell was attempting to bring politics into the event, which is prohibited by state elections law.

A spokesman for the city said the job fair will now be held June 21.

E-mail correspondence between Mitchell's council office and the housing department shows that Mitchell aides contacted the center in March and asked if the office could take part in the event and if it could distribute a flier promoting the fair. Workers at the action center initially agreed to Mitchell's participation, according to the e-mails.

On May 1, staff in Mitchell's office sent a draft flier to the housing department - seeking pre-approval for its distribution. The flier included letterhead that read "Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell, Jr." and also "Baltimore City - 11th District Community News." The letterhead contained Mitchell's picture and the body of the flier noted that a representative from Mitchell's office would be on hand at the fair.

The letterhead was orange, which is also the color Mitchell's campaign uses on signs, bumper stickers and other literature. Mitchell aides, however, provided copies of two other electronic fliers that have been distributed by his council office in past months with identical letterhead.

A May 2 e-mail sent by a manager at the Western Community Action Center to Mitchell's office reads: "You cannot send this e-mail out," referring to the Mitchell flier, "this is not the flyer you received. ... This also takes away the purpose of the community event. ... You need to call me!"

Two days later, Mitchell's office sent a second draft of the flier for approval, this one without any letterhead but retaining the line about Mitchell having a representative at the fair. A Mitchell staff member wrote that he believed the line was necessary to "show some relevance as to why the e-mail is being sent from Councilman Mitchell's office."

On May 14, Aline Kirk-Watson, a manager at the center, wrote that the event had been canceled: "This event was for the residents of Baltimore city ... . This was not a political event ... . With respect in the future this was unethical and you will not receive any correspondence in reference to the services that take place at the Western Community Action Center."

Reached by The Sun yesterday - and before being told what the call was regarding - Kirk-Watson said, "I can't talk to you. Have a good day." She then hung up the telephone.

Reginald Scriber, the housing department's deputy commissioner of community services, said he decided to cancel the event after his staff raised questions about Mitchell's flier. He said he was concerned about the appearance of impropriety and said he wanted time to determine what had happened before things got out of hand.

"You can't take an event that was being sponsored by the city and turn it into your event. We're going to do this in a way that's professional," Scriber said. "I took the position, based on all that was going on here, that it was in our best interest to cancel the job fair."

Scriber said he made the decision on his own and that he was not in contact with Dixon or the mayor's office regarding the job fair.

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