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Keeping tabs on the City Council's activities so you don't have to

"Little Melvin" Williams is seeking zoning approval to run an auditorium at the property he owns at 2112-2136 North Ave.

By Van Smith | Posted 8/19/2009

On the Agenda for Aug. 10

The two Baltimore City Council bills introduced by Belinda Conaway (D-7th District) at the Aug. 10 City Council meeting were eye-openers for the councilwoman herself, she reveals in an Aug. 12 phone interview. Conaway says that she hadn't previously heard of the famous Baltimore gangster-turned-actor, "Little Melvin" Williams ("Redemption Song and Dance," Mobtown Beat, Mar. 19, 2008), who requested one of the bills. And she says she only recently learned that flavored tobacco wrappers, the sale of which would be banned with passage of her other bill, are often used to do drugs.

Conaway's Bill #09-0389, seeks "conditional use" zoning so that Williams can operate 2112-2136 W. North Ave., his well-known headquarters in West Baltimore, as an admission-charging auditorium. When Williams approached Conaway about the legislation, she recalls he told her he'd been to prison, but that's about all she knew about him--until she asked her father, Baltimore City Circuit Court Clerk Frank Conaway Sr., to give her the skinny on Williams' streetwise life and times.

The councilwoman's naivete regarding Williams' decades-long exploits as a high-volume heroin trafficker and high-profile gambler in West Baltimore, chronicled by two generations of news coverage, a Barry Levinson movie depiction, and a Black Entertainment Television documentary, is remarkable. "Sorry," she says, suggesting that "maybe it's a generational thing." As for Williams' turn as the Deacon on the HBO series The Wire, the councilwoman quickly utters a retort often heard among Baltimore politicos: "I haven't seen The Wire."

(Williams is not the only Hollywood type tied to city legislation introduced at the Aug. 10 council session. Movie mogul James G. Robinson, founder and CEO of Morgan Creek Productions, owns 33 parcels of Baltimore City real estate, near where Broening Highway crosses Colgate Creek, that the Department of Recreation and Parks, with Bill #09-0377, seeks to acquire for parkland. Details about that deal were not forthcoming, despite numerous calls by City Paper to Rec and Parks officials.)

A conditional use like the one Conaway is seeking on behalf of Williams, once granted, generally increases a property's value because it adds a permanent right to do something there that didn't exist before. But another bill introduced Aug. 10, Bill #09-0387, sponsored by Rochelle "Rikki" Spector (D-5th District), would set a legal framework for suspending or revoking a conditional use. Thus, should Conaway's and Spector's bills both pass into law, Williams will get his right to make money running his North Avenue property as an auditorium, while the city will get the power to strip him of that right later.

The other Aug. 10 bill Conaway introduced seeks to ban the sale of flavored tobacco wrappers (Bill #09-0388). Conaway says she was surprised when C.D. Witherspoon, a Baltimore political organizer, told her recently that "young people are using [the wrappers] to roll marijuana" and suggested she file the legislation. The wrappers' long-established presence on convenience store and gas station check-out counters and in the hands of the blunt-smokers, so prevalent on Baltimore street corners, had escaped her prior notice, she says.

Conaway's colleague, Robert Curran (D-3rd District), also has a tobacco bill (Bill #09-0385), prohibiting the sale of small cigars, sold individually, often at convenience store and gas station check-out counters--the ones marijuana smokers sometimes dissect for re-use in rolling blunts. But Curran says he's really after "mitigating the loss of lives to tobacco." (It's a goal he says is dear to him as he has a personal struggle with smoking. "I'm not going to admit I'm totally cured," Curran says, "but I'm above 95 percent.") Curran predicts his bill will encounter "roadblocks from merchants, the convenience stores and the gas stations," but he vows to press forward in his "attempt to help continue to curb teenage smoking."

Mary Pat Clarke (D-14th District) also introduced a newsworthy bill on Aug. 10. "There's a loophole in local law" due to a recent court decision involving the Cresmont Loft Apartment in Remington, she says, "and my bill is to close that loophole." A long-simmering lawsuit produced the ruling, which loosens the zoning definition of "family" so that the Cresmont can continue renting out individual bedrooms attached to suites ("We Are Family?" Mobtown Beat, Aug. 5). But Clarke, with Bill #09-0384, says she wants to make it so "you can't rent out the bedrooms--that's what it's all about."

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