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Meeting is called to dismiss head of CHAP preservation agency

Sources says the “personnel matter” cited on the agency’s agenda is aimed at firing the too-independent executive director.

Above: CHAP’s Kathleen Kotarba pictured last year at an event with Jeff Jerome, director of the Poe House.

(UPDATE: Thomas Stosur, director of planning, released this statement to The Brew tonight: “The Baltimore City Planning Department and the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) do not discuss personnel matters. Both the Planning Department and the members of the Commission are fully committed to promoting and supporting historic preservation in Baltimore in a responsible way. The appointed position described in your inquiry serves at the pleasure of the Commission.”)

The Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) is holding a special meeting on Monday to vote on dismissing Kathleen Kotarba, the agency’s longtime executive director, according to a city preservationist and two other informed sources.

The meeting, announced on the agency’s website late on Tuesday, is scheduled for 1 p.m. at City Hall. The meeting is expected to immediately go into closed session because it involves “personnel matters” and is therefore exempt from the Maryland Open Meetings Act.

Sources in the preservation community and at City Hall say the meeting was arranged at the direction of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s office, which has chafed at CHAP’s independence.

“We believe the effort to fire Kotarba is related to her work on controversial historic preservation issues, particularly the preservation of Read’s Drug Store,” said Eli Pousson, field officer for Baltimore Heritage, who went on record to describe the tensions between the administration and the commission.

Unlike most city agency heads, Kotarba works for the commission, not Rawlings-Blake, and cannot be dismissed directly by the mayor. “It was set up this way on purpose, knowing that the director of the city’s preservation commission might encounter controversial issues,” Pousson said.

Kotarba is a 33-year veteran of city government and is currently paid $80,000 a year.

Monday’s meeting was arranged through Thomas Stosur, who was just appointed to a new term as director of planning by Rawlings-Blake. Under the city code, “the Director of Planning, with the approval of a majority of the Commission, may suspend or dismiss the Executive Director [of CHAP].”

New Rawlings-Blake Appointees on Commission

Rawlings-Blake’s efforts will be aided by four new members on the commission, who have replaced four CHAP commissioners – most notably, Dr. Helena Hicks – who were considered not to have sufficient loyalty to the mayor and her development agenda.

While Kotarba is considered to be nonpartisan and does not normally take public stands on preservation issues – her agency has reportedly incurred the wrath of the mayor over the preservation of Read’s Drug Store, the “special list” status of the Mechanic Theatre and other issues.

Ex-commissioner Hicks, for example, was a vocal critical of the mayor’s plan to save only the facade of the Read’s building. Hicks was not reappointed by the mayor, along with three other veteran commissioners – architects David Gleason and Donald Kann and realtor Eva Higgins.

Higgins was reportedly removed from CHAP because she was a campaign contributor to Otis Rolley, who ran against Rawlings-Blake in the Democratic primary last year.

The mayor’s spokesman Ryan O’Doherty said Higgins and the other members were not reappointed because they had reached their two-term limit.

However, campaign supporters of the mayor with the same seniority on the commission, such as movie theater owner James “Buzz” Cusack, were reappointed to new terms this summer.

Commission Under Pressure to Allow Demolition of Mechanic Theatre

In addition to Read’s, the commission has voiced objections to developer David S. Brown’s plan to demolish the Mechanic Theatre, a “special list” property. The agency also recently shot down a request by Rev. Alvin C. Hathaway Sr., a Rawlings-Blake confidante, to replace the slate roof of historic Union Baptist Church with asphalt shingles.

“In addition to expressing support for Kotarba, our concern is the effort to fire her reflects a broader effort to undermine the independence and effectiveness of CHAP to enforce the city’s historic preservation laws,” said Pousson.

Kotarba did not respond to a request for comment by The Brew today.

The four new members of CHAP are Aaron Bryant, curator for the James E. Lewis Museum of Art at Morgan State University; realtor Cindy Conklin; developer James F. French; and Matthew Mosca, a historic paint finishes consultant.

The other nine members of CHAP are Thomas A. Liebel, chair; City Councilman Bill Henry; Deputy Housing Commissioner Michael Braverman; Robert C. Embry; Larry Gibson; “Buzz” Cusack; Donna A. Cypress; Anath Ranon; and Thomas K. Seiler.

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