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The Nose

Candid Cameraman

Where the Sun Don't Shine: Leonard Kerpelman

Posted 6/9/2004

The Nose rarely gets much out of the Sun's Between the Lines feature--the paper's largely featherweight effort to liven up the Monday Maryland section with a hodgepodge of gossipy behind-the-scenes blurbage. But the May 24 BTL did capture our attention, describing as it did a dustup at the May 19 Baltimore City Board of Estimates meeting that led Leonard Kerpelman to get tossed out on his ear.

Ah, the Kerpster: crotchety, salty-tongued, erstwhile City Council candidate, celebrated (though now disbarred) constitutional-rights lawyer, and inveterate champion of Channel 5, the city's public-access cable TV station that's home to his homegrown In and Around Baltimore show. The garrulous, frumpily attired counselor-cum-cameraman can display all the subtlety and tact of an airborne cicada. But . . . but . . . he's a crafty dude who's often in the right.

Kerpelman says some folks view him as "a monster with a two-pound camera," and as such he works as sort of a one-man C-Span, stalking and shooting lawmakers in the field. He has a fascination for the Board of Estimates meetings, the five-member, mayor-led assemblage that doles out city cash (approving contracts, developer deals, and such). We've seen the K-Man alongside his 20-pound-camera-wielding colleagues from the city's commercial TV stations filming Board of Estimates goings-on for years. So what happened this time? Seems Kerpelman got busted for barging, camera in tow, into the board's so-called pre-meeting, wherein the members and assorted hangers-on congregate in a smallish adjacent conference room to wheel and deal over coffee and Danish.

The press is admitted to these pre-meets. Kerpelman says he helped make this so some three years ago after complaining to the City Solicitor's Office about lack of public access to the meetings. But while writerly types are green-lighted into this chat fest, Kerpelman says his camera has long been unwelcome.

"I was feeling a little hyper and tired of this shit," Kerpelman says of his recent decision to sling his lens into the room on May 19 anyway. The resulting tape captures all the fireworks. First there's City Council President Sheila Dixon polishing her glasses and clearly in no mood to kibitz with Kerpelman. "Call my security, please," she says. "I'm serious about that."

Then the Video Monster goes mano ŕ mano with Councilman Bob Curran, as the latter shouts that Mr. K. is "violating the decorum of the room" and urges him to "get a life." When the wide-eyed Mayor Martin O'Malley walks into the fray, Kerpelman asks a clearly frazzled hizzoner whether public-access TV should be at the meeting.

"Right now I'm not in favor of access," the mayor finally mutters. It's all captured in Kerpelman's inimitable tilt-a-whirl cinéma vérité style, which is to say, framing his subject's faces seems an afterthought to Kerpelman. Foreheads bob in and out of view, and random shots of walls and doors often take precedent. Up until one face finally does fill the screen--the mug belonging to the city cop who escorts the loose-cannon cameraman out of the room--a constant utterance from the board members is that the City Solicitor's Office has previously ruled that cameras are no-no in the pre-meet. Kerpelman can be heard scoffing back, "You're making it up as you go along."

Now the Nose is no lawyer, but after cursory glance through both the state's Open Meetings Act and a lengthy manual on these Sunshine Laws produced by the office of Bob Curran's big brother, Maryland Attorney General Joe Curran, we find no statute prohibiting video cameras at meetings where the public and press are allowed. We took our conclusion to the solicitor's office, and after chewing on it for over a week, Deputy City Solicitor Donald Huskey agreed.

"We believe the act would permit cameras in the meeting room as long as the people with those cameras do not ask questions," Huskey says. "The law does not allow them to be a participant."

When apprised of the ruling, Kerpelman said from here on he would "sometimes" be toting his camera into the pre-meet. (Depending largely on whether he can find a parking space in time to make the meeting's 8:30 a.m. start time.)

"I have no intention participating in the meeting," he adds, by way of saying he is prepared to play nice.

And so Kerpelman soldiers on.

"People like to say behind my back that I'm a crank or a weirdo," the septuagenarian cameraslinger says. "But I'm going to keep this up till I die."

You've been warned.

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