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Landlord-Friendly Lead-Paint Bill Proposed for Baltimore

Frank Klein
POISON PEN: Ruth Ann Norton (right), executive director of the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, asked the city council to pass a bill creating a controversial new lead task force.

By Stephen Janis | Posted 3/23/2005

The Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning (CECLP), a Baltimore-based nonprofit, found itself in the midst of controversy last week in the form of a City Council resolution of its own making: Resolution 05-0149, calling for the creation of a “Task Force to study lead hazard inspection, enforcement, and abatement” was introduced by City Council President Shelia Dixon at “the request of the CECLP.” The bill was on the agenda for the March 14 City Council session for “immediate adoption” (which in parliamentary parlance means an immediate vote without the benefit of committee hearings and expert testimony) but never made it to the City Council floor after some heated debate at a March 14 City Council lunch meeting.

The resolution caught many in the lead-advocacy community by surprise, as Ruth Ann Norton, executive director of the CECLP, didn’t consult any of the usual suspects—including city Health Commissioner Dr. Peter Beilenson—about the bill.

“We knew nothing about this and were not consulted,” Beilenson said in a phone interview with City Paper. “It seems like a strange move on the part of the coalition, given that we need to be working together to save funding.” (The city is struggling to prevent the loss of $375,000, proposed to be cut from the state’s 2006 budget, targeted for lead-law enforcement in the city.)

The bill pitched to the council by CECLP would authorize a task force to decide who should be in charge of the lead enforcement at the city level—right now, the city’s Health Department is charged with the duty, and Beilenson characterizes the attempt to push this bill through as coming at a “very bad time.”

“I have my theories as to why [the bill was proposed],” he says. “But I don’t want to talk about them.”

The resolution calls for the task force to include, among others, the Property Owner’s Association of Greater Baltimore and the Maryland Multi-family Housing Association. Members of both organizations are currently facing lead-code violations, so the opportunity to sit on a lead-enforcement task force would be particularly appealing—if only to advocate on behalf of their members’ interests. Terry Harris, a local environmental activist and attorney, likens inviting these groups to sit on the task force to “asking crack dealers who’s going to police them.”

Chris Williams, spokesman for City Council President Shelia Dixon, declined to explain why the bill was asked to be pushed through for a vote without discussion; he also declined to explain the proposed makeup of the task force and said that not contacting Beilenson’s office for input on the bill “was an oversight.”

At the City Council’s March 14 work lunch, a noontime meeting that takes place before the council’s evening public meetings, Norton justified the CECLP’s push for the task force: “We need to assess the effectiveness of how we’re doing on lead enforcement,” she said, adding that “testing needs to be improved,” and “we aren’t testing enough children.”

But Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke (D-14th District), who announced her own upcoming lead initiative at the City Council’s evening meeting, expressed displeasure with the bill. Waving a copy of the bill’s text at Norton, Clarke said she was upset with the resolution, which suggested “transference of lead Violation Enforcement to the Department of Housing.” The Department of Housing is the city’s largest landlord.

“Were these your judgments?” Clarke asked. “Is this your language? Who wrote this?”

Clarke also asked Norton why the CECLP supported a bill that would “let slumlords off the hook.” Norton replied that “the coalition’s support has been mischaracterized.”

One item in the bill that did not come up in discussion was a clause that noted that “the mission and the membership of the Task Force will be amended at the discretion of the membership.” In other words, the Task Force would set its own agenda and select its membership without consulting the City Council. “I’ve never seen language like that in a task-force resolution,” Harris says. “It’s a little insidious.”

The resolution did not receive the immediate adoption the CECLP was pushing for—in fact, it was tabled by Dixon at the lunch meeting until “the current legislative session in Annapolis is done, after which it will be brought up again.”

Norton would not offer further comment on the bill, referring all questions to Dixon’s office.

When contacted by phone after the meeting, Councilwoman Clarke said she would be taking up the lead issue herself in the future, promising to introduce new legislation that will, she says, “end this problem once and for all.”

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Lead-ing the Charge (3/1/2006)
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