You don’t have to search hard to find major shortcomings in Baltimore City government. But I’ve seen few things as ominous and corrosive as the verbal abuse heaped on Rebecca Witt, executive director of the Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals (BMZA), last week by Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer during a hearing on the zoning board’s budget.
The abuse was ad hominem, mean-spirited, protracted and clearly intended to intimidate Witt and other board members.
Witt’s offense: In January, the BMZA eliminated its “consent docket,” a longstanding but thoroughly unlawful practice.
A variance to zoning requirements, such as rear- and side-yard setbacks from property lines and limitations on how much of a lot can be covered by structures, may be granted only if strict enforcement would result in unnecessary hardship or practical difficulty because of a particular physical characteristic of the property.
It’s an intentionally difficult standard to satisfy.
Contempt for Rule of Law
According to Witt, around 15 or 20 years ago the board adopted a policy of placing variances for which there was no opposition from neighbors or others on the “consent docket” where the variances were given blanket approval without regard to whether they satisfied that standard.
In effect, the legal standard, adopted by the City Council, only mattered if your neighbor objected to the variance.
Council members liked the consent docket because it permitted unopposed variance requests by their constituents to circumvent the law, but preserved the right of neighbors and community associations to demand that unpopular requests comply with the law. A classic double standard.
While politically expedient, the consent docket was a complete abrogation of BMZA’s duty to objectively apply the law to the facts of each case.
That is a duty enshrined in the city charter along with the board’s ostensible independence from political influence.
Schleifer’s comments and questions appeared to reflect not only personal animus toward Witt, but also contempt for the separation of municipal powers and the rule of law.
He blamed Witt, the board’s lawyer, for its decision to eliminate the consent docket. He grilled her on statements she allegedly made before she became executive director and accused her of bringing her “personal feelings” to the job.
Councilman Ryan Dorsey was the only committee member to come to Witt’s defense, saying, “I appreciate the decision of, not you, but of the board, that it should uphold standards properly.”
Councilman Zeke Cohen did engage Witt in a thoughtful discussion of changes that the Council could make to the law to make it less difficult to obtain variances.
But Schleifer was having none of that.
Instead, he threatened to “zero out” the BMZA’s annual budget if the consent docket was not reinstituted.
Why? Relaxing the legal standard for variances has political risks because it would make all variances, including those unpopular with neighbors, easier to obtain.
Better for Schleifer and like-minded Council members if the BMZA simply turns a blind eye to the law when a variance is unopposed.
Deputy City Solicitor Stephen Salsbury was asked for comment by committee chair Eric Costello, who appeared as angered as Schleifer by the elimination of the consent docket.
It was painfully obvious that Salsbury was wary of crossing Costello and Schleifer. The best he could manage was that the elimination was “not necessarily illogical.” Huh?
Perhaps Salsbury was aware that the mayor was also displeased by the BZMA’s action.
It was painfully obvious that Deputy Solicitor Stephen Salsbury was wary of crossing Costello and Schleifer.
Deputy Mayor Justin Williams suggested that the BZMA could be “coached” into employing more “leeway” in applying the variance standard, claiming that board members felt “more constrained than they actually are.”
Both Salsbury and Williams looked decidedly uncomfortable.
Costello alluded to an upcoming meeting between Witt and the city law office and, totally overstepping his bounds, attempted to extract a promise from her that the BZMA would follow the advice of the law office.
Given the quality of past advice by the law office, I urge members of the BZMA to read that advice first and make a copy available to the public.
To ensure that the message delivered by Schleifer and himself got across, Costello admonished BZMA member Bill Cunningham, who was in the audience, to tell his colleagues “what you’ve just heard here today.”
Nothing subtle about that.
A Diseased Culture
If this kind of bullying goes on in public, one can only imagine the arm-twisting of administrative officials to disregard the law that goes on behind closed doors.
And there is no reason to believe that arm-twisting is limited to zoning variances and does not extend to other city functions.
The attitude displayed at the hearing was a sign of a diseased culture within city government – a product of the lack of moral leadership at the City Council and in the mayor’s office.
City Hall might as well hang a sign on its door: Only persons willing to compromise their professional integrity need apply.
The culture, if not changed, will continue to drag Baltimore down. Among other things, it will make it impossible to restore the quality of the workforce.
Competent administrators, managers and other professionals are willing to accept positions in local government that require them to take on serious challenges.
They will not do so, however, if they believe that they will be forced to work in an environment dominated and corrupted by politics and the personal interests of elected officials.
City Hall might as well hang a sign on its door: Only persons willing to compromise their professional integrity and sacrifice their self-respect need apply.
• David A. Plymyer retired as Anne Arundel County Attorney after 31 years in the county law office. To reach him: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @dplymyer.