Carl Stokes came out swinging in the wake of last night’s stormy Harbor Point hearing, saying his fellow committee members and City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young showed “an arrogant display of corruption” in forcing passage of the $107 million TIF financing bill.
“They corrupted the system,” he said in an interview this evening with The Brew. “The rules are the rules and the process is the process. But they decided to hijack the process for the purpose of passing legislation without amendments and without the public getting a full hearing on the issues.”
Stokes surprised a roomful of spectators last night – as well as committee members – when he abruptly rose from the chairman’s seat and stalked out of the Council chambers.
The walkout took place nearly three hours into the committee hearing, after Councilwoman Rochelle “Rikki” Spector got angry with the audience and called them a “peanut gallery” and Councilmen Warren Branch and Ed Reisinger asked to comment on a speaker’s amendment to the legislation.
Reisinger then quickly called on the committee to “move” on the legislation.
“At this point I knew they were going to run the meeting,” Stokes said today. “They had taken the chairmanship from me. So I banged an adjournment and said, ‘OK, you guys can do what you want.’”
As spectators cried “foul” and “adjourn the meeting,” Reisinger, Warren Branch and William H. Cole IV voted in favor of the $107 million TIF subsidy, while committee vice chair Bill Henry abstained.
With testimony yet to be given by some members of the audience, the hearing was declared over.
After the meeting, Reisinger called Stokes’ walkout “unprofessional and irresponsible” and insisted that the panel had followed the rules and heard from scores of citizens who favored or opposed the legislation.
A Friendship Frays
Stokes took particular umbrage at Council President Young, a longtime friend and political ally who had appointed Stokes to the chairmanship of the powerful Taxation, Finance and Economic Development Committee in 2010.
Young had sat through last night’s hearing and at one point tartly told Stokes that he stood by his prior statement that he would “do everything in my power” to make sure the Harbor Point bill was passed.
“I was hopeful, as a friend and out respect for the hundreds of citizens who came out so strongly against the legislation, that the president would have supported the process through,” Stokes said. “I was not only surprised but stunned that the president participated in the hijacking.”
He continued, “There is no doubt that the committee diminished the process and humiliated themselves. I don’t think they are really aware of that, but I hope they will be.”
Young left the hearing without comment last night, but tonight his spokesman, Lester Davis, said, “The council president is disappointed that the councilman chose to neglect his duties by leaving the hearing prematurely. It’s the job of the men and women of this body to carry out their sworn duties and not to leave a legal proceeding when things aren’t going their way.”
“Democracy in Action”
Regarding last night’s meeting, Davis said, “What happened was democracy in action – hundreds of people coming to hear about an important issue, dozens of people submitting testimony agreeing or disagreeing, and the Council carrying out its responsibility to act on the legislation.”
Stokes said he has not talked to Young since last night’s incident and has no idea of what may become of his chairmanship. “Jack and I will have a conversation. It’s not personal – I know I serve at the will of the president.”
Coming into last night’s hearing, Stokes said he had expected the committee to consider revised material submitted just hours earlier by the Department of Finance and listen to “thoughtful” amendments proposed by BUILD (Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development) and others.
Like Peeling an Onion
While he said he opposed the TIF legislation – “the city could commit $2 or $3 million a year for 10 years to do the street and utility work rather than squander $280 million, including interest, on a project which won’t begin paying property taxes into the general fund until 2025” – he said he was willing to allow votes on the bill and consider compromises, if that was the consensus of the committee.
What he objected to, he said, was the pressure placed on the committee to act before it had all the facts on the project. “This process has been like peeling an onion, there are so many layers to the TIF, and the committee needs to keep peeling,” he said.
Stokes added that citizens were largely kept in the dark about the Harbor Point TIF prior to the matter coming before his committee because the Baltimore Development Corporation (BDC) and Board of Finance held their meetings in private.
Last month, the state attorney general’s office ruled that the Finance Board had violated the Maryland Open Meetings Act by closing the meeting where it discussed and approved the $107 million TIF plan.
At last night’s hearing, Stokes cited the closed-door meetings as cause for his concern that the developer subsidies were not being “vetted” properly and above board.