The Year in News
O’Malley’s proud defense of the city he leads was part of his ongoing effort to overcome Baltimore’s famous inferiority complex with optimism. “The Greatest City in America,” “Better Isn’t Good Enough,” and “Believe” are among his best-known slogans, but the news hasn’t been cooperating. This year’s biggest stories add up to one giant story about a city stoically surviving trust-shattering leadership failures—a picture that emerges perhaps as a result of the crisis-chasing nature of newsmaking, but an unavoidable one nonetheless. One can be poor, stupid, incapable, and strong, and Baltimore showed signs of all four in 2004.
Longest-Ever Elections Finally End
City Paper covered the recently held local elections for 17 and a half months, an institutional record that’s likely never to be beat. Why so long? Because, back in 1999, city leaders persuaded voters that holding city and presidential elections simultaneously would increase voter turnout and save an estimated $1 million. Thus, during the same balloting that elected Martin O’Malley mayor, city voters added an extra year to his term (and those of the comptroller and members of the City Council) by setting the next general election to coincide with the presidential contest in November 2004.
Unbeknownst to voters in 1999’s referendum, though, the date of the primary election can only be changed by the state legislature, which didn’t act. So the primary for the 2004 general election was held, as legally scheduled, in September 2003—an absurd outcome, known as the “14-month gap,” that made the city a national laughingstock. To add insult to injury, voters in November passed another referendum, again at city leaders’ urging, switching the whole ball of wax back to the way it was before 1999—million-dollar savings and improved voter participation be damned.
Schools Burn Money, Students Burn Schools
The calendar year opened with the Baltimore City Public School System agonizing over a $58 million deficit and the prospect of widespread employee layoffs. As the school year opened, the deficit remained despite substantial payroll- and program-cutting, and the school system was getting closer to paying off the $42 million it borrowed from the cash-strapped city in March to avert imminent insolvency. Schools chief Bonnie Copeland inherited the mess, and her efforts first uncovered it, prompting disturbing questions about broad lapses in budgetary judgment and a who-cares? bureaucratic culture.
“Was there criminal intent? Did anyone profit personally? We’re not going to feel secure until we have the answers to those questions,” declared state schools Superintendent Nancy Grasmick in February, as she promised to find out where the money went. Her investigation didn’t reveal crimes—though in May the city School Board’s former operations coordinator pled guilty to federal charges of bank fraud and misapplication of school funds and still faces state theft charges. What Grasmick’s inquiry turned up, when its results came out in July, was rampant mismanagement and lack of oversight.
In the schools, meanwhile, students were doing well academically. Standardized-test scores rose this year across all grades and subjects, a good indication of effective instruction despite the strain of a system in crisis mode. Student behavior, though, was another matter. In August, 16 Baltimore schools were the only ones in Maryland to be placed on a watch list for high numbers of long-term suspensions and expulsions. In the fall, a rash of student-set fires at schools around the city had news watchers shaking their heads in bewilderment.
Top Cops Get Jailed, Fired, Flagged for Finances
Former Baltimore Police commissioner Edward Norris got six months in federal prison for misusing police funds to underwrite his playboy lifestyle. His former chief of staff, John Stendrini, got six months of probation for his part in the fun. This, from two men who promised to make battling police corruption a top departmental priority when they arrived here from New York in 2000.
Norris’ replacement as city police commissioner, Kevin Clark, also from New York, struggled mightily to maintain Norris’ violence-abating gains, but was dumped by the mayor in November. The stated reason: erosion of Clark’s ability to lead in the aftermath of a scandal. The uproar had grown out of a domestic-dispute investigation in May, focusing on Clark and his girlfriend, in which Clark was officially cleared. Reports of the investigation were kept under wraps until the courts ordered them released, revealing that Clark had another domestic-dispute situation in his New York past. After Clark—O’Malley’s third commissioner—was axed, he hit back with a lawsuit seeking $120 million for wrongful termination. On the heels of Clark’s complaint, a group of African-American current and former cops also sued, using Clark’s situation and many others over the years to claim the department maintains a racially hostile workplace.
Batting fourth in O’Malley’s lineup of police commissioners is Leonard Hamm, whose appointment still awaits City Council approval. He’s a local, had been in the No. 2 spot under Clark since September, and had served for 22 years in the force until 1996, when he retired as a major. In a 1997 bankruptcy filing, though, Hamm appears not to have been totally forthcoming about his income at the time—a no-no when you’re trying to get court protection from creditors. He insists everything was kosher, and it remains to be seen whether the episode will matter in his confirmation hearings.
Reform Governor hanks Cronies
When Republican Congressman Robert Ehrlich beat Democratic Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend two years ago in the governor’s race, he promised to stamp out Maryland’s “culture of corruption,” while crediting the business wing of the state’s Democratic party for having switched sides to help him to victory. Now, as he continues to be cozy with erstwhile Democratic donors, Ehrlich is beginning to take on some tarnish himself.
While construction titan and influential real-estate developer Willard Hackerman apparently hasn’t contributed to Ehrlich’s campaign committees, a major Hackerman business partner, Howard S. Brown, did throw a $100,000 fund raiser for the governor two days after November’s presidential election. Hackerman—a rainmaking stalwart in Democratic circles and a longtime ally of Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, who often seconds Ehrlich’s vote on the three-member state Board of Public Works—doesn’t need to contribute to get favors from Ehrlich.
This year, the governor appointed Hackerman to the board of the Maryland Health and Higher Educational Facilities Authority, which issues hundreds of millions of dollars in bonds for construction projects that sometimes go to Hackerman’s Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. To get around the conflict, Hackerman promised to abstain on votes that may pertain to his business interests. But what really broke big news was a land deal—abandoned once its details became known publicly this fall—in which the state would sell 836 acres of St. Mary’s County forest to Hackerman, who would get millions in tax breaks while building a lakefront development on a portion of the property.
The Sun’s exploration into the Hackerman deal led to the discovery that the governor had ordered a survey of state lands to find potentially surplus acreage in or around state parks, and came up with about 3,000 acres in scattered sites. As the Hackerman scandal grew, Ehrlich reassured the public that state-owned parks and forests “never were and never will be for sale.”
How about leased for free as a waterfront educational facility for faith-based groups? That’s what retirement-community developer John Erickson’s nonprofit foundation got from the Ehrlich administration—though the initial planning for the project, a partnership with the state Department of Natural Resources, started before Ehrlich was elected in 2002. Erickson, a reliable Democratic donor, has donated thousands to Ehrlich’s campaign committees.
It’s all beginning to look like more of the same as under former Democratic governor Parris Glendening, whose relationships with rich and powerful interests ensnared him in ethics controversies that many Republicans recall as the hallmark of his two terms. Unlike Ehrlich, though, Glendening didn’t run on a promise to clean house. And who would have ever expected that a Republican governor would appoint a disgraced Democratic ex-governor—Marvin Mandel—to the University of Maryland Board of Regents? Sitting with Mandel around that prestigious table is Richard Hug, Ehrlich’s campaign-finance chairman, whose secretive pro-slots nonprofit group, Citizens for Maryland’s Future, drew an FBI probe earlier this year, the results of which are still unknown.
An imperious hack lawyer improperly wielding prosecutorial power for political ends? Or a righteous lawman, courageously pursuing powerful suspects? Thomas DiBiagio’s mercurial three-year tenure as Maryland’s federal prosecutor was open to extreme interpretations, and now it’s about over. He announced his resignation in December, saying he never intended to serve in a second term for President Bush. It was already obvious by then, though, that his days at the Garmatz Federal Courthouse were numbered.
Although bad guys were put away during his stay, DiBiagio’s zeal as the state’s top fed made him the target of investigators sent by his own bosses in D.C., who started looking into his public-corruption caseload this summer. The investigation was spurred by his own staff, which in July leaked internal e-mails to The Sun documenting that DiBiagio commanded them to get “three ‘front-page’ white collar/public corruption indictments” by Nov. 6.
When the Sun reports were published, virtually every member of the outgoing City Council was in DiBiagio’s sights. Some of them complained that his investigative curiosity was nothing but a political witch hunt for something, anything, to dismantle the local Democratic power structure. Presumably, with DiBiagio exiting the public stage, his targets are snickering in self-righteous delight.
Ex-police commish Norris and his sidekick Stendrini got their just desserts this year, as mentioned above. Former University of Maryland Board of Regents member Nathan Chapman, a wealthy money manager who grew prominent during the Glendening years, did too, getting seven and a half years in November for bilking the state pension system and his publicly traded companies. Former Rite Aid CEO Martin Grass, a Greenspring Valley resident, drew an eight-year sentence for accounting fraud at the drug-store chain. In April, the same crime landed Michele Tobin, whose Network Technologies Group used to install cable around Baltimore, in federal prison for nine years. Timothy Lee and William Carter of Columbia-based U.S. Foodservice, a subsidiary of the globally scandalized Royal Ahold supermarket conglomerate, pleaded guilty to fraud and conspiracy in July for their part in an accounting-fraud scheme; sentencing is scheduled for January. Ravens star running back Jamal Lewis ’fessed up to facilitating drug trafficking in an October plea bargain that calls for a four-month jail term. In December, Maryland lobbyist Ira Cooke was found guilty by a California jury of theft, bribery, and conspiracy in a mental-health business scandal in Bakersfield, Calif., where he faces sentencing in January.
More than a thousand manufacturing jobs in Maryland—a sector long on the decline, representing only 6 percent of jobs in the state, and about twice that nationally—were condemned to the gallows in November, when General Motors announced the long-expected closure of its Broening Highway plant. It opened in 1939 but has been wheezing and sputtering for a generation now. Along with the gutted Sparrows Point work force nearby, who’ve been facing the slow, relentless death of the Bethlehem Steel facility there, the GM workers form a whole class of folk whose traditional, solid-paying livelihoods are going extinct. The minivan factory’s closure is emblematic of what economists note as the “hollowing out” of the middle class, whose ranks are headed either for remunerative jobs requiring specialized technological training, rock-bottom wages in the service industry, or the unemployment lines.
On Jan. 8, the University of Maryland system broke ground on the first of seven buildings that ultimately will make up the $300 million, 800,000-square-foot UMB BioPark on the long-fallow 800 and 900 blocks of West Baltimore Street. The first building is now nearing completion, and foundation work for the second is underway. Across town, an 80-acre swath of neighborhoods surrounding Johns Hopkins’ East Baltimore campus is slated to become a billion-dollar, 2 million-square-foot life-sciences campus integrated with residential and commercial space. The first phase of the project, overseen by East Baltimore Development Inc., is awaiting the imminent choice of a developer, though demolition of properties—many of them longtime homes of East Baltimore residents—has been underway all year long. Both projects envision a host of private tenants bringing biotech products to market, spawning a plethora of good-paying jobs.
Economists and city leaders are rosy about these investments, which hinge on the expected future growth of knowledge-based wealth creation in place of traditional factory production. They have also sparked new interest and investment in surrounding neighborhoods.
The University of Maryland’s project uses publicly owned land that’s been banked for redevelopment for decades—the result of government buyouts—and is the university’s first foray across Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, long a physical, economic, and psychological divide between prosperous downtown and West Baltimore poverty. The East Baltimore project involved exercising the city’s eminent-domain powers to displace existing homeowners and renters—a strategy that naysayers decry as an equity grab.
In January, NASA’s chief announced the cancellation of a scheduled 2006 space-shuttle mission to keep the vaunted Hubble Space Telescope, which is run by an institute housed at Johns Hopkins’ Homewood campus, operating until the end of its life expectancy in 2010. Forestalling the telescope’s demise quickly became a top action item for the tenacious U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski; she used her position on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee to find money for NASA to send a robotic rescue mission to the ’scope. But it came, along with other big-ticket items in the budget, at a cost, as Maryland’s junior senator quickly pointed out.
“We had to cut essential programs,” she said on the Senate floor in November. “We were forced to cut housing for the elderly by $26 million. Housing for the disabled is cut by $10 million. The Community Development Block Grant program, one of the most important programs in this bill and one of the most important programs for state and local government, is cut by $200 million compared to last year.” You get the picture.
No sooner had the ink dried on the spending bill than a panel of National Academy of Science experts said a robotic mission might not work, and recommended a shuttle visit after all, despite concerns about astronaut safety that came to the fore after the Columbia disaster last year. How—or whether—the Hubble gets serviced is still an open question, but the opportunity cost in underwriting its lifeline, as Mikulski clearly understands, is poignant.
Another year, another failed plan to put slot machines in Maryland—and the prospect of yet another slots fight in the year to come. Why do we keep beating this horse? Because it isn’t dead yet, and in the absence of political will from the über-powerful governor to craft a courageous, long-term fiscal plan that doesn’t rely on increased gambling, it is likely to stay on as an annual punching bag and perhaps even pass some day, in one form or another. In the meantime, Ehrlich continues to make austere across-the-board cuts to state programs, despite a revenue picture that grew rosier this year. Once he gets state government down to skin and bones, expect him to start taking off limbs—or, as he has already shown himself wont to do, raising “user fees” instead of taxes. After all, taxes aren’t taxes unless he says they are. At least O’Malley—who, against dire warnings of overtaxing what was already the most heavily taxed jurisdiction in the state—called his year’s new city taxes on phones, energy, and real-estate transactions what they were and let voters at the polls decide whether they would stomach it. They did, by re-electing him. Whether voters statewide appreciate Ehrlich’s budgeting strategy will be measured at the polls, too—in the 2006 gubernatorial election.
The Year In Tracks (12/15/2009)
. . . just in the case the album really is dead.
The Year in News (12/9/2009)
The Year in Movies (12/9/2009)
Two Maryland Men indicted in Arizona for illegal machine guns
The Big Hurt (8/4/2010)
Inmate claims gang-tied correctional officer ordered "hit"
Not a Snitch (7/22/2010)
Court filing mistakenly called murdered activist an informant, police say
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