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Inside City Hall: Baby steps at the BDC

Today’s board meeting – the first under BDC’s new president William Cole – was a bit more transparent, but still didn’t embrace the spirit of the Open Meetings Act

Above: BDC meeting today with newly appointed member Kurt Schmoke on the far right, board chairman Arnold Williams sipping coffee, and BDC president Bill Cole to his right.

The Baltimore Development Corporation, long criticized for its lack of transparency (here, here and here), cautiously tiptoed today toward making its public meetings more open to the public under its new CEO and president, William H. Cole IV.

For example, board member Deborah Hunt Devan revealed that a request for a PILOT tax break by Pennrose Properties near Johns Hopkins Hospital did not “demonstrate the need for city assistance” in part because it was eligible for another tax break known as a TIF.

So the board rejected the idea. But in regards to another developer’s proposal to buy city property on Mulberry Street for new apartments, veteran BDC chairman Arnold Williams stepped in to close the meeting under Article 10-508(a)(14) of the Maryland Open Meetings Act.

Minutes earlier, envelopes stamped “confidential” had been passed out to board members apparently disclosing the terms of the proposed deal with a group referred to as “Baltimore West Apartments.”

The material was part of an earlier Request for Proposals by the BDC that was also deemed off-limits to the public and press. Not even the name of the developer was disclosed today. (BDC’s press officer later said it’s GMP Development Enterprises LLC whose resident agent is local lawyer N. Scott Phillips.)

Such was the record of the first board meeting held under former 11th District Councilman Cole, named chief of the BDC last month following the short but stormy tenure of Brenda McKenzie.

For Whose Benefit?

Today the affable Cole took the high road, extolling the progress made by the Rawlings-Blake administration on the West Side – news nugget: the district’s $102,000-a-year coordinator, Brian Greenan, has been shuffled from the mayor’s office to the BDC – while a more-stressed-looking Williams did the heavy lifting regarding the closed-meeting issue.

Williams announced that “there are about 14 ways” that the BDC can close a public meeting. He was referring to the circumstances under which a public body can close a meeting under the 1977 law.

According to the Open Meetings Act Manual, these exceptions should always be “strictly construed” by a public body “in favor of open meetings.”

The manual goes on to say that “nothing in the Open Meetings Act itself requires a public body to invoke an exception.” In fact, a public group is free to meet in open session “even if, under the Act, it could legally meet in closed session.”

Moreover, the Maryland Attorney General, who administers the law, says that “a public body may not avoid an open meeting merely because a topic is controversial or potentially embarrassing.”

“Secret Discussions” Barred

Williams invoked a section in the law that allows a public body to privately discuss a “negotiating strategy or contents of a bid or proposal” that would “adversely impact on the ability of the public body to participate in the competitive or bidding proposal process.”

However, this exception specifically bars “secret discussions” by a public body about “open bids submitted by various bidders.”

In the today’s case, Williams fretted that the private developer – not the BDC or the city – would be adversely impacted by the disclosure of his proposed price for city-owned land at 410 and 422 West Mulberry Street to build his proposed apartments.

More generally justifying closed board sessions, Williams said the disclosure of financial information “discourages certain developers to get actively involved in the work of the city.”

What he didn’t mention is that similar financial information is mandated as a matter of course for competitive bids and Requests for Proposals administered by the Board of Estimates.

In fact, bids are announced every Wednesday at noon at City Hall, with the written proposals of all bidders, including financial terms, available for public inspection.

As a two-term member of the City Council, Cole well knows these requirements. And as a former member of the Council’s Taxation, Finance and Economic Development Committee he knows that its chairman sometimes discloses financial information that the BDC deems too sensitive for public eyes without any known adverse effects on the city’s well-being.

As BDC’s new president, Cole needs to introduce fully open meetings to an entity that’s far too long hidden under its status as a non-profit supplier of economic development services to get around rules governing other city agencies.

FULL DISCLOSURE: The Brew publicly protested the closing of today’s meeting before we were kicked out.

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