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City circuit court workers protest filthy conditions

Justice SystemFinanceAFSCMEFrank M. Conaway, Sr.

Roughly 40 Baltimore circuit court employees and their union representatives marched to City Hall Monday afternoon, complaining of dangerous courthouse conditions and threatening to sue if they don't get funds for new office space, as prosecutors have been separately promised.

"If … we're left behind, that's not justice," said Pat Kelly, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 3674, which represents members of the Circuit Court clerk's office. The group camped briefly in front of City Hall, waving signs listing their grievances: rodents, bugs, contaminated air, soiled restrooms, deplorable conditions.

"Every day when I go in there, I have to sanitize my desk because of the mice droppings," Kelly said. "We have to do our own cleaning, we have to do our own sweeping, it's just filthy."

Courthouse complaints are nothing new. The ancient buildings, split into east and west sections by Calvert Street, have been in need of repair for decades. Doors are held together with duct tape, ceiling tiles are missing, water fountains don't work, bathrooms are barely functional, and it's been years since the electrical systems were up to code. Some also believe the buildings are making them ill.

"It's awful," Circuit Court Clerk Frank M. Conaway Sr. said in an interview this month, after sending out a news release calling attention to the need for renovations. Though the city pays for the courthouse's upkeep, Conaway said he has used $175,000 of his own budget to repair and refurbish several clerk's areas during the past two years, and he plans to spend an additional $170,000.

Renovations, including a new building, will cost between $530 million and $620 million, depending upon whether you count prosecutors' needs in the mix, Administrative Judge Marcella A. Holland, who oversees the buildings, said in an interview last week.

She acknowledged that the courthouses are in rough shape and not the healthiest to be in, but says her hands are largely tied by a lack of funds. Even custodial service contracts have been cut by the cash-strapped city — down 48 percent this fiscal year to $15,000 per month, from $28,733 in fiscal year 2009, according to city figures.

That means the floors don't get mopped anymore, and vacuuming happens once a week, Holland said. A spokeswoman for the city's Department of General Services said they're asking employees to help out as well, by emptying their own trash cans and keeping their areas neat.

Holland dismissed some of the doom-and-gloom image portrayed by clerk employees, however. "They're always painting such a bleak picture," she said. The courthouse is "not about to fall down and crumble."

A study by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health couldn't find a correlation between employee illnesses and the building, leading some to surmise that it's not a sick environment. And some improvements have been made, she said.

New elevators have been installed in the east courthouse, and a new bathroom in the west. Security has been enhanced with the help of grants obtained by judges and used to pay for cameras and x-ray technology. But one of the biggest differences was made in 2001, when then-Mayor Martin O'Malley pledged $500,000 to drape the buildings in screens to prevent bird droppings from getting into the ventilation system.

Still, it's a far cry from the sleek, modern courthouses in other jurisdictions. "We are behind because the city never has money," Holland said. "It's money, plain and simple."

Monday's protest was at least the fourth time in the past dozen years that clerk's office employees have rallied around the state of the city's Circuit Court. They've waved signs and threatened to sue before, too, but they've never followed through, believing in a "good faith promise" that something would change, they said.

They're ready to pursue a lawsuit about unsafe conditions this time, according to Barry Chapman, executive director of AFSCME. Their motivator was Baltimore State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein's successful effort to secure $500,000 in the state's budget for rent money for new offices and a pending promise to match it from the mayor.

"That gives us a little edge," Chapman said, suggesting the promised funds prove the city knows the buildings are uninhabitable.

"It's a duty when they know something is wrong to fix it," he said.

tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

twitter.com/triciabishop

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  • Clarification: An earlier version of this story misstated the amount by which custodial service contracts had been cut.

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