Inside City Hall
Inside City Hall: Behind closed doors, BDC hammers out deals
The art of the exemption. Or how to keep news about a city development project out of the media.
Above: The BDC meets in a closed session this morning.
Every month a time-honored ritual takes place at the Baltimore Development Corporation (BDC). After engaging in some preliminary discussion, the agency’s board gets down to business by kicking out the media and closing its doors.
The Maryland Open Meetings Act requires all public bodies to meet in open session unless there is a compelling reason to do otherwise.
The BDC board, which instigates and acts on the biggest development deals in Baltimore, has perfected the art of the exemption.
Today was no different. Not long after the meeting had started, board chairman Arnold Williams was calling for a vote to close it.
The Brew has been voicing an objection to this process for months. Today we didn’t bother to object. Instead, we’re going to tell you what happened.
7:39 a.m. – At what may be the earliest time for any public body to meet in Maryland, the board opens its monthly public session, nine minutes late.
7:44 a.m. – Acting president Kimberly A. Clark gives her report to the board. One big success she reports: winning The Baltimore Sun‘s endorsement of a tax deal to help Under Armour expand at Locust Point.
Clark says she had spent an hour talking to the editorial writer about the $35 million deal, which exceeded the city’s own internal guidelines for a subsidy. Reading the favorable Sun editorial was “an ‘ah-ha’ moment instead of a ‘gotcha,’” she tells the board, looking pleased.
7:50 a.m. – BDC officer Phil Croskey runs through a Powerpoint of two proposals for the rehabilitation of the now-vacant Parkway Theatre on North Ave.
One is by developer Sam Polakoff, whose previous bid on the Parkway was thrown out by the BDC. The other is by the Maryland Film Festival in collaboration with Seawall Development (Thibault and Donald Manekin), Johns Hopkins University and the Maryland Institute of Art.
After a brief overview of the proposals – both would have live music and studio space, with the film festival proposal including a film study educational component – Williams halts the presentation so that the board can discuss “the financials” in private.
8:07 a.m. – Here it comes: Williams invokes three subsections of the Open Meetings Act to close the rest of the meeting.
The Parkway Theatre proposals: exempt under statute 10-508(a)(14) because public discussion or disclosure “would adversely impact . . . the bidding or proposal process,” Williams says.
A Business Retention and Expansion report: exempt under 10-508(a)(4) because it “concerns [a] proposal for a business or industrial organization to locate, expand or remain in the State,” Williams says.
A Loan and Audit Committee report: exempt under 10-508(a)(5), allowing a public board to “consider the investment of public funds” privately, Williams says.
8:11 a.m. – The board unanimously votes to close the meeting. The conference room door is shut behind this reporter.
8:15-8:58 a.m. – Sitting in the BDC reception area, The Brew reads the minutes of the Business Retention and Project Review Committees. (The material is in a loose-leaf notebook emblazoned with prohibitions against “removing” or “copying” the contents.)
Turns out, there’s not much to read. The last meeting of the Business Retention committee started at 4:09 p.m. on September 17. A minute later (4:10 p.m.), it was closed by chairman Atwood “Woody” Collins III, president of M&T Bank’s Mid-Atlantic Division. The meeting was reopened and adjourned at 4:55 p.m.
The Project Oversight committee met at 12:18 p.m. on September 19. It was closed at 12:32 p.m. The meeting remained private until it adjourned at an unspecified time.
8:58 a.m. – Today’s closed session comes to a, well, close. The 15 members of the board (not all present today) begin to scatter through downtown.
Among its members: four top city officials, including finance chief Harry Black and Kaliope Parthemos, the mayor’s development chief.
There’s one union representative (Bert J. Hash, president of the municipal employees credit union), one accountant (Williams), two attorneys (Deborah Hunt Devan and Gilberto de Jesus) and five bankers (including Collins, Kenneth Moreland of T. Rowe Price and and Brian Tracey of Bank of America).
The board members are appointed by the mayor. Some of them, like Williams, have been appointed for a long time.
9:05 a.m. – Asked why the BDC does not open up more of its meetings, Kimberly Clark replies, “There is a balancing act we have to perform.” She said that proprietary information from developers is reviewed during the closed sessions. If released, such information would spell doom to the developers at the hands of their competitors.
The board’s recommendations to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake – regarding what projects should receive TIFs, PILOTs (payment in lieu of taxes) or other government subsidies, and at what levels – are also not publicly revealed.
Again, this confidentiality is maintained “to protect that proprietary information” and to gain the most detailed insight into the financial aspects of any given project.
“How else,” Clark asks, “can we be certain we are presenting the best deal for the city?”
9:15 a.m. – Leaving the BDC, Williams is spotted. He says he disagrees with critics who say the BDC is too secretive.
“The meetings are very open, I believe,” he said. “The only time we close them is when the discussion is in accordance with the statutes. I think during the board meeting [today], we made it pretty clear what statues we were using.”
A founding partner of a local accounting firm, Williams was appointed to the BDC by then-mayor Kurt Schmoke in the 1990s. He was named chairman by Mayor Martin O’Malley in January 2002 and has remained in that position ever since.