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by Mark Reutter3:54 pmMay 6, 20200

Standing tall against high grass, Mayor Young reinstates the mowing contracts he denounced

If you’ve noticed that Baltimore’s parks and medians look unkempt, that’s because they haven’t been mowed all spring

Above: Grass in the Northern Parkway median was blowing in the wind last Saturday. (Mark Reutter)

With many Baltimore parks looking like Midwest wheat fields and grass spreading out of control in roadway median strips, four candidates for public office today took a stand on the pressing issue of grass cutting.

Bernard C. “Jack” Young (seeking to remain mayor), City Council President Brandon M. Scott (hoping to become mayor), Councilman Leon F. Pinkett (running to succeed Scott), and Joan Pratt (looking to secure her seventh term as city comptroller) made it clear they are:

• Against high grass (together with unsightly lawn clippings and rough border edges) in roadway medians.

• In favor of employing (at some point in the future) disadvantaged city youth to cut grass and perform other lawn functions.

• Dedicated to demanding that vendors perform their contracts at the lowest possible price to taxpayers.

“I do care about trimmings that’s not cleaned up and ends up in our harbor,” Young announced. “And I’m looking at all these contracts for duplicity [sic] to see if we need those contracts.”

“We all know that the medians look very bad and, with the rain we’ve had, they’re overgrown,” agreed Pratt.

“I’m looking at all these contracts for duplicity to see if we need those contracts”  – Mayor Jack Young.

“I’ve started cutting medians myself because we [i.e., the Young administration] were simply not having them cut,” added Scott.

After 30 minutes of debate and testimony from a councilman, a civic activist and a lawyer, the Board of Estimates voted to approve the same mowing contracts it had rejected two weeks earlier.

Voting in favor were Young, Scott, City Solicitor Dana Moore and Acting Public Works Director Matthew Garbark. Abstaining was Comptroller Pratt.

In a tweet posted on Monday, Brandon Scott said he and his father had cut median grass on Wabash Avenue and prodded the mayor about why other medians weren't getting cut. (@CouncilPresBMS)

Brandon Scott took a poke at the mayor on Monday about why the median strips in Baltimore weren’t getting cut. (@CouncilPresBMS)

Turf War

It was Young’s outburst at the April 22 BOE meeting that started the brouhaha over mowing.

Lorenz, a Baltimore County tree care and turf maintenance company, has won over $12 million in mowing and planting contracts from the city over the last four years.

Set to be awarded $4.7 million more in contract renewals, the mayor announced to the board that he had “big problems” with how medians were being mowed.

Young’s criticism caught company owner, Joe Lorenz, by surprise and left city officials wondering how to maintain pocket parks, medians, park lawns and other public spaces at the height of the spring growing season.

Delayed “First Cut”

DOT Director Steve Sharkey told the board that he reassigned 38 employees this week to start cutting medians (“following proper PPE and social distancing”), but said it would likely take them five weeks to complete the “first cut” citywide.

But with Lorenz also mowing, the first cut could be done three times as fast or roughly by May 17.

And the second cut, which otherwise could take another three weeks, could be similarly telescoped with Lorenz on board, Sharkey said.

“Shouldn’t justification be warranted for this price increase,” Pinkett asked the spending board, whose members didn’t reply.

That information was apparently enough to convince Scott and Young to approve the contract, despite a warning by Councilman Pinkett that the current contract price for mowing was potentially 40% higher than earlier Lorenz contracts.

“Shouldn’t justification be warranted for this price increase,” Pinkett asked the spending board, whose members didn’t reply.

From left, Travis Minott (DPW), Erin Sher Smyth (Purchasing) and address the Board of Estimates as Kim Trueheart and her Bmore Clean and Green participants listen. (CharmTV)

Kim Trueheart (far right) and members of the Bmore Clean and Clean team fault a brush clearing contract assigned to Lorenz last January. Former city purchasing agent, Erin Sher Smyth, defends the contract before the Board of Estimates. (CharmTV)

No Response

The board also heard from activist Kim Trueheart, who has criticized Lorenz for not employing more city residents, especially young people.

“There are numerous nonprofits and companies in Baltimore City who are capable of performing this low-skill work,” she said.

Five months ago, Mayor Young had promised to study ways in which city agencies and private vendors could provide workforce development opportunities, but “I haven’t heard a response back,” Trueheart said.

Ex-squeegee workers, now trained in landscaping, ask City Hall for a chance (1/11/20)

Young didn’t respond to Trueheart’s remarks today, but DOT’s Sharkey pointed out that he had set up various partnerships for youth employment when he was head of the Department of General Services.

“I would love to consider other job training programs in the future, but it has to work for the city”  – DOT Director Steve Sharkey.

“Each of these partnerships took more than a year of hard work to make happen,” he said. “I would love to consider other job training programs in the future, but it has to work for the city.”

The mowing contracts reinstated today require minority and women-owned subcontractors who do over a third of the work.

Counting these subcontractors, about 60% of the mowing workforce lives in the city, Robert Dashiell, an attorney representing Lorenz, told the board.

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