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Baltimore City

Gansler joins court employees protesting conditions

Under the marble columns of Baltimore's downtown courthouse Thursday, Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler joined about three dozen court staff protesting the working conditions inside.

Workers at the century-old courthouse have been complaining for more than a decade about asbestos, lead paint, rodents and poor air quality in their offices. Gansler, a Democrat who is running for governor, said the state needs to do more to support city court employees.

"We're not talking about criminals here. We're talking about citizens who live in Baltimore, live around Baltimore, work here every day and have to work in inhumane conditions," he said to shouts of encouragement from the crowd. "It's just not right."

In an interview, Gansler stopped short of supporting the construction of a new courthouse, an approach recommended in 2011 by an architectural firm hired by the judiciary and the city. He said the move is something he would consider.

The architectural firm estimated that a new building would cost about $600 million. Frank M. Conaway Sr., the clerk of the court, said he did not see any other way to solve his staff's problems.

"I really don't think it can be fixed up to be acceptable to me; I think we need a new courthouse," he said.

The employees, members of AFSCME Local 3674, gathered behind a banner in front of the Battle Monument in the center of Calvert Street. Some wore masks over their mouths, others coughed for dramatic effect and one woman brought out a dustpan and broom to demonstrate how she has to sweep her office each morning.

Peggy Ferrell, who works in the accounting department, said dirty air vents are the most troubling problem she faces. "Very seldom do they get cleaned out."

The Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse, on the west side of Calvert Street, opened in 1900 and was extensively remodeled in the 1950s. The Circuit Court now also occupies the former Baltimore Post Office and U.S. Courthouse on the east side of the street.

Steve Sharkey, director of the city agency that manages the buildings, said numerous repairs have been done in recent years, and that court buildings are as well kept up as any other city property.

"We're definitely doing anything we can to keep the buildings safe and habitable," he said.

But the court employees have been protesting conditions for years, and their calls for new facilities have intensified since city and state officials put together an $11 million package so the Baltimore state's attorney's office could rent offices at the nearby SunTrust Building for 10 years.

A history of the Mitchell courthouse written in 2009 billed the structure as Baltimore's greatest 19th-century architectural achievement, built with no expense spared and featuring mahogany paneling, marble facades, tiled mosaic floors and brass doors.

In the intervening century the building's glory has faded. The public areas and some of the courtrooms are kept clean and well maintained, but the back offices have worn carpets and old furniture.

"When you come in here, the stench just hits you," union leader Pat Kelly said as she crossed the threshold of the criminal clerk's office.

The consultants hired to study the possibility of a new courthouse noted that the court buildings were a "distinctive symbol of Beaux-Arts classicism" but concluded that the facilities had serious problems.

"The Circuit Court for Baltimore city struggles with dire existing building conditions," they wrote, "including spaces that are unsafe, dysfunctional, and lacking in necessary features that would allow for the respectful and dignifed dispensing of justice."

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun