'Home' is where politicians say it is

Water bills raise questions about where City Council members live

April 26, 2011|By Marta H. Mossburg

'Home' evokes many nostalgic meanings. But it is also the place where you sleep, eat, shower, use the bathroom and wash dishes and clothes.

According to water consumption records of City Council members, two are either models of green living or frequently don't use the addresses listed as their homes in city ethics filings for the activities listed above. Some records can't be tracked because the residence is a condominium and water bills are divided equally among residents. It has already been widely publicized that City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young lives around the corner from the place listed on his ethics forms. Reports show Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector spends most of her time outside of the 5th District.

City Council members are supposed to live in the districts they represent. Legally, however, they can declare residency in their districts and live someplace else. A 1998 ruling by the Maryland Court of Appeals in Blount v. Boston found that the "concept of domicile is somewhat elusive."

For most people, home is not a "concept." Neither should representative government be a "concept" for the residents of Baltimore City. It should be a moral requirement, if not a legal one, for council members to live among the people who elected them to office.

The spate of corruption scandals involving city employees and police officers are no surprise when those in charge of them can't be inconvenienced to live in the places they represent. If the leaders can't be bothered to fulfill the spirit of the law, why should employees?

Let's take City Councilwoman Belinda Conaway (7th District), who says she lives at 3210 Liberty Heights Avenue. She is married with children. Frank Conaway Jr. and Frank Conaway Sr. also officially list that address as their own, as blogger Adam Meister first pointed out. All told, there should be at least six people living there at any given time. But water records suggest that isn't possible.

The Conaway household used on average 14.5 units in 2010 per billing period, or about 118 gallons per day. The U.S. Geological Survey says the average person uses about 80 to 100 gallons of water at home per day. In the first billing cycle of 2011 their usage spiked to 81 units, or 659 gallons per day.

Asked why the family's consumption grew dramatically in the last quarter, Frank Conaway Sr., clerk of the circuit court, said he didn't understand why it went up. "I was going to complain about it (the bill)," he said. As a side note, the family owes $486.42 in back payments, according to records, or more than is required for the city to be able to seize the home under the water bill lien enforcement law.

Councilwoman Conaway also owns a property in Randallstown in Baltimore County with her husband. Water consumption at 9810 Southall Rd. has been "normal or slightly above average" for the size of her family going back at least until 2009, according to David Fidler, spokesman for the county public works department. A visit to the home earlier this week showed a modest white brick facade colonial with maroon shutters, a well kept yard and oversized house numbers advertising the address next to the front door. No one was home, and a neighbor said "no comment" and closed the door when asked who lived in the property next to hers.

Councilwoman Conaway invited me to visit 3210 Liberty Heights Avenue unannounced any morning when she normally takes her children to school. It would be better if she explained who lived in Randallstown.

Councilman Carl Stokes (12th District) is another minimalist when it comes to using water at his home, listed as 2411 Guilford Ave. The two most recent billing periods show he used 3 units and 5 units respectively after using 12 and 11 in two earlier billing periods in 2010.

Asked how he could use only about 24 gallons of water per day, he said, "I am not normal. I leave the house early and eat out every day." He added, "It's very hard to be asked to defend the truth."

Maybe Mr. Stokes is not normal. Maybe all the Conaways live as one big happy earth family at 3210 Liberty Heights Road, recycling rainwater, rationing showers, flushes and their drinking water. Or maybe the water bills are all wrong. But the numbers tell another story.

It's up to voters to decide if they deserve to go home, wherever that may be.

Marta H. Mossburg is a senior fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute and a fellow at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Her column appears regularly in The Baltimore Sun. Her e-mail is martamossburg@gmail.com.

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