The Year in News
Our mayor was indicted and convicted of embezzlement this year. We learned just how deeply a violent drug-dealing gang had infiltrated our prisons--so deeply that even correctional officers were found to have ties to the gang and its leaders. We also discovered that our city's pension fund could very well send the city spiraling into a black hole of bankruptcy. Was there any good news to recap from 2009? Thanks to a forward-thinking city schools administrator who brought fresh foods and actual cuisine to school lunches, a decision by a federal judge to let a lawsuit filed by the city against Wells Fargo bank move forward, and a decisive move by the Obama administration to let the federal government take the lead on restoring the Chesapeake Bay, the year wasn't a complete bust. Still, we're hoping for better news in 2010. In the meantime, here's a recap of the things that made us cringe or clap over the past 12 months.
The words "It's a sad day for Baltimore" were uttered by many on Dec. 1, when a Baltimore jury convicted the city's mayor, Sheila Dixon, for embezzling gift cards intended for the needy. Maryland's Democratic governor, former Baltimore mayor Martin O'Malley, expressed this sentiment, as did the Republican state prosecutor, Robert Rohrbaugh, whose four-year City Hall investigation culminated in the conviction. It may be sad that Dixon did it, but it's sadder still that nothing more significant turned up. Rohrbaugh's probe followed another earlier one, by former Republican U.S. Attorney Thomas DiBiagio, which self-destructed after an internal e-mail surfaced suggesting that partisan politics was DiBiagio's true aim. Nearly a full decade of turning City Hall inside out, subpoenaing documents, and grand-jury testimony, and all we get is a lowly gift-card scandal? Many in Baltimore, who suspect worse conduct is the norm under the City Hall dome, justifiably see that as the real disappointment.
The Black Guerrilla Family's ideological origins in the Black Power movement of the 1960s, under the positive vibe of its charismatic founder, California prison inmate and noted author George Jackson, don't change what it is: a prison gang that, like any other, is prone to do bad things, which the feds say it has been doing in Maryland. Under leader Eric Brown, a veteran inmate and author of The Black Book, a positive-vibe tome endorsed by prominent local educators, two dozen alleged BGF members are accused of running a drug-dealing and extortion racket that operated both inside and outside of prison walls. Brown appears to have been on the verge of legitimacy, setting up a non-profit, Harambee Jamaa Inc., that espoused good works in the community. Whether Brown and his cohorts--including several with legit-looking backgrounds--would make George Jackson proud, or turn over in his grave, presumably will be sorted out at trial, scheduled for next year. ("Black-Booked," Feature, August 5, 2009)
Public pension-plan administrators across the nation are reeling from the stock market's 2008-09 nosedive, rethinking decades of sunny predictions, and risky investments that allowed governments to shortchange their obligations to retirees. In Baltimore, City Hall got a $165 million bill in October just to fund the pension obligations to the fire and police employees. Some administration officials worry that pension benefits could bankrupt the city--as they played a role in bankrupting some other towns. With no easy solution in sight, the trend threatens to open a rift between private-sector employees--most of whom receive no pension--and government workers, who are among the last working class people to receive a defined-benefit retirement, often with built-in cost-of-living increases. Class warfare never looked so complex. ("Pension Headache," Feature, Oct. 14, 2009)
The spring was bad enough, with three prison guards and a corrections employee indicted in the federal indictments in Maryland targeting the Black Guerrilla Family prison gang. But the fall drove the problem of law enforcers accused of law-breaking to the extreme. A veteran Baltimore police detective working as a task-force officer for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Mark Lunsford, was accused of gaming the system for paying informants to get himself paid--not only with government cash, but with other people's property, especially expensive watches. More prison guards suspected of gang ties--16 of them--were named in investigative reports that came to light in an inmate's lawsuit, revealing that prison authorities knew about the suspicions three years ago--and ordered that they stop being investigated. Yet another prison guard was charged for getting a cell phone to her inmate boyfriend, who's awaiting trial for murder. Meanwhile, prosecutors dropped charges against Baltimore police officer Michael Sylvester, who was accused of stealing cash from a drug dealer--though the department says he's still under investigation. ("Costly Charges," Mobtown Beat, Nov. 11, 2009; "'A Big No-No,'" Mobtown Beat, Nov. 4, 2009; "Ganging Up," Mobtown Beat, Oct. 21, 2009)
Everyone's feeling it: Projecting a big-ass deficit for 2010, the state slashed its budget this year and no one, it seems, was totally immune to the blow. Higher-ed took a cut. Arts funding took a cut. State workers felt the pain in the way of mandatory furlough days. Cities and counties took a big cut from the money they usually get to help pay for things like health clinics, police, and transportation. The Department of Human Resources, which administers the state's social services, is feeling the pinch as well--a state hiring freeze kept the agency from filling nearly 200 vacant positions this year, despite the fact that the number of Marylanders in need of a safety-net in the form of food stamps, temporary cash assistance, utility assistance, and the like has increased as the economy worsens. ("Net Loss," Feature, Nov. 4, 2009; "Bankrupting the Arts," Feature, March 25, 2009; No Care for the Homeless, Mobtown Beat, June 26, 2009)
In some ways, the story of The Sun this year is the same one we've been telling for years: More layoffs, more cutbacks, The Sun is now just a shadow, etc. We've seen buyouts, layoffs, and elimination of foreign bureaus. But things took a particularly ugly turn in April of this year, when The Sun purged its editorial staff of 60 newsroom employees--most of them editors and designers--including the head of its copy desk, John McIntyre. "Editing is being treated as an expensive luxury," McIntyre told City Paper at the time. In its place, it seems, the paper has invested more time and resources in Twitter and other social-media, and new Sun Editor Monty Cook told a panel on the future of newspapers this year that The Baltimore Sun company is no longer a newspaper company, that reporters at The Sun should start thinking of themselves as a "brand," and that "the days of the six-part series" in the paper are gone. Indeed--it's no wonder Baltimore Magazine published a cover story about The Sun earlier this year titled, simply, "The End." ("NewsGate," Mobtown Beat, May 13, 2009; "Newspaper Guild Scrambles in Wake of Layoffs," The News Hole, April 30, 2009)
The first substantial hearings in the city's ambitious lawsuit against Wells Fargo Bank captured national attention this summer, as the bank's lawyers moved for dismissal, and the city piled on damning affidavits from former Wells insiders. (Beth Jacobson, a former $700,000-a-year-loan officer, admitted she knew that targeting African-Americans for high-cost loans meant she was "riding the stagecoach to hell.") The judge let the city's suit go forward, but a little-noticed aspect of the case is the large number of foreclosed "investors"--a substantial percentage of whom were part of mortgage fraud schemes. Baltimore is no stranger to mortgage fraud, but the last time flipping scams took over the market, the city worked with the lenders to try to help everyday victims. By ignoring the street-level fraud this time around (indeed, calling it irrelevant), the city has raised the stakes. ("The Victim Who Wasn't There," Mobtown Beat, July 15, 2009)
The 64,000-square-mile Chesapeake Bay watershed is home to nearly 17 million people in four states and the District of Columbia--quite a large constituency, given that few would take issue with efforts to restore the long-degraded national treasure. An interstate coalition of state governments has been entrusted with the primary responsibilities of enforcing and administering the bay's multi-billion-dollar recuperation, yielding poor report cards, year after year, as the estuary's slide has continued apace. In May, though, President Obama signed an executive order mandating a federal takeover of the clean-up effort. Congress is now debating whether to codify the new arrangement, so priorities can't be changed capriciously by future White House administrations. Political solutions haven't cleaned up the bay so far, but trying something new, instead of continuing on the same, failed course, is at least an end to decades of futility.
The infamous--and hilarious--ACORN "pimp" video released Sept. 9 by right-wing activists sent the venerable activist group into a tailspin. Long under attack by conspiracy-minded wingnuts, ACORN deflected criticism until the video proved that (in Baltimore, at least), the nonprofit's workers would not hesitate to help a prostitute evade taxes and her pimp import underage sex slaves. Congressional defunding followed, and the organization, which claims 400,000 members, has been reduced to a bleating shadow of its former self, filling its web site with dubious defenses of its members' actions and claims that "the media failed ACORN." How anyone can think this is anything but a good thing is hard to envision, but there is this: Without the "thugs" of ACORN to organize and guide them, who will champion the cause of America's (non-criminal) poor? ("ACORN--Or Just Nuts?" The News Hole, Sept. 10, 2009)
Baltimore's school system is still mired in, well, Baltimore. The dropout rate is too high, the poverty rate is through the clouds, there is violence. And yet, slowly, test scores are improving. Kids are staying. Schools chief Andrés Alonso has begun what could be a historic turnaround. One part of that is his decision to hire--and stay out of the way of--a loud, brilliant, driven former New Orleans chef named Tony Geraci. As boss of the system's food, Geraci has gotten a long unused farm off the ground, and is transforming school food into something not just tasty, but healthy. And he's teaching kids how to grow and cook their own. Geraci's idea of using fresh, locally grown vegetables, meat, and dairy products ought to be common sense. That it's instead seen as revolutionary--and threatening--shows just how dysfunctional our nation's food production and delivery system has gotten. Geraci's up against long odds. Wish him well; help if you can. "The New Meal," Feature, June 3, 2009)
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201