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Alderman Kirby serves Annapolis with no home of his own

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Every other Monday night, Annapolis Alderman Kenneth A. Kirby, dressed in a suit and tie, takes his seat on the dais at City Council meetings, discussing community issues and voting on legislation.

Afterward, the others head home from City Hall. And Kirby wanders.

Kirby, who grew up in public housing in the capital city, is without a permanent place to live. He stays with a network of friends and family who open their homes to him — a niece in public housing, a friend in Annapolis' moneyed downtown.

Friends say Kirby, whose personal struggle came to light this month after police found him while raiding an apartment in search of the drug PCP, moves easily between the different worlds of a city that many see as deeply divided by race and class. He has to.

Police say Kirby is innocent of any wrongdoing, but he has nonetheless faced questions since the incident about his living situation and his lack of employment beyond the $12,600-a-year council job. Though he acknowledges he doesn't have a home of his own, Kirby denies that he is homeless.

"I really don't have to tell anyone where I lay my head every night," said Kirby. "I could go sleep under the Weems Creek Bridge every night. I can visit everyone and anyone I want to and choose where I sleep."

Kirby, 57, would prefer to talk about other parts of his life. The first-term Democrat grew up poor, went on to college and played professional basketball overseas. He was elected in 2009 to represent Ward 6 on the city council.

Craig Purcell, a Baltimore architect who was a member of Kirby's 1973 graduating class at Annapolis High School, said questions about Kirby's housing arrangements and employment are unwarranted.

Purcell said Kirby has a "unique way" of navigating Annapolis' communities, where affluent whites are clustered in the waterfront downtown area and poor blacks live in the city's public housing developments.

"Kenny's been forever like that — he does what he has to do to survive," said Purcell. "Annapolis is not exactly affordable. … He's been doing that for years. He stays with lot of people. He knows a lot of people. Not everybody can live in a nice mansion."

Purcell, who played lacrosse in high school, remembers the 6-foot-7-inch Kirby as a basketball star. As popular athletes, they knew of each other but ran in different circles. When Kirby ran unsuccessfully for alderman in 1993, Purcell, who was then living in Annapolis, contacted him.

"We share common ideas about the city and what's going on," said Purcell, who frequently weighs in on matters related to the city's historic district.

In his two years on the council, Kirby, who chairs the Housing and Human Welfare Committee, has pressed for more public transportation options, funding for recreation centers, and a law change that would allow more downtown bars and restaurants to stay open until 2 a.m.

Alderman Ross H. Arnett III, an Eastport Democrat, says Kirby's strength as council member lies in his ability to effectively advocate for his constituents. Arnett said he's been impressed with Kirby's equal attentiveness to the concerns of downtown business owners and public housing residents.

"You can't go anywhere in town with Kenny without a whole bunch of people coming up and saying, 'Hi,'" said Arnett. "Everyone knows him. He's really an affable person — always upbeat and positive. In spite of his personal struggles, growing up in public housing, not having a lot of wealth, he has a very positive attitude toward life."

Kirby bounces around Annapolis, staying with friends and relatives. A reporter recently met him for an interview at his father's house. He uses an address in his district that belongs to a family friend, who said he doesn't live there but sleeps there occasionally.

Over sandwiches and coffee at the 49 West cafe in downtown Annapolis recently, Kirby said he was looking for full-time work but worried that the publicity over the drug raid would hamper the search.

"I have the same problem so many other millions of Americans have," said Kirby, in his signature gravelly tone. "It's just a downturn in the economy. It's very tough … but I have a good family. My family and friends help me a lot. They prop me up where they can."

Public records show he has had financial troubles. In 2007, a Massachusetts judge issued a lien for unpaid child-support payments to the tune of $26,784. Several federal tax liens from the IRS were also levied against him, including one in 1991 for $5,376.

Kirby declined to answer questions about his finances, calling it a private matter.

On Jan. 5, Annapolis police, armed with "no-knock" search warrants, raided two apartments in the 1200 block of Madison St., part of the Harbour House public housing development. Police found PCP, marijuana and packaging material, and arrested three people in the first apartment. In the second apartment, they found Kirby, who said he was watching TV.

Police said no drugs were found in the apartment where Kirby was staying, which his niece rents, and he was not charged.

Kirby initially hesitated to talk about the incident and still declines to answer questions about the details of the raid. But he now says he believes he was targeted because of positions he's taken as alderman and because of a pending lawsuit involving injuries allegedly suffered by his late mother.

"Yeah, I do think I was targeted," said Kirby. "All I know is I have some nervous moments right now. I'd like for it to all go away. … They had all the wrong information. No drugs were ever sold out of that house. Because I may be a little outspoken on some issues, I think I may be the target of some people's ire right now."

He added, "I'm a law-abiding citizen. I will not be portrayed as a drug alderman."

Annapolis Police Chief Michael A. Pristoop called Kirby's allegation that he was targeted "absurd," and said there's "no question" that the police informant's information that "a drug dealer was frequenting an apartment [Kirby] was staying in" was "accurate and reliable."

"We were just as surprised to see Alderman Kirby in there as I imagine he was to see us," said Pristoop, who added that police had no idea Kirby would be in the apartment because he was not on the lease. "We believed then, and we believe now, that the drug dealer was mobile going between the apartments."

As a youngster, Kirby was known for his athletic prowess and keen intellect. Michael "Lil Buck" McFarland, who ran an athletic league out of a laundromat he owned on Clay Street, remembers Kirby playing in the league and helping mentor younger kids as a leader in the community.

"He was always a very intelligent young man," said McFarland. "He was a little ahead of his time intellectually. He was wise beyond his years. … He always had the players prepared, talked to the younger players and helped them along."

Kirby won a scholarship to York College in Pennsylvania but left in his senior year, just a few credits short of graduating, to play professional basketball in Europe.

"Basketball was one of those things that took me through school," said Kirby. "It was a God-given gift. It was an opportunity I wasn't going to pass on."

While he was a college freshman, he and his high school sweetheart — a cheerleader at rival Severna Park High School — had a baby girl they named Kennita.

Two years later, he had his son, Kenny Jr., with another girlfriend.

Under pressure to provide for his growing family, he left school to play professional basketball in Belgium, he said. He played for two years before returning to Annapolis. He said he eventually moved with a college girlfriend to Boston, where they married and lived about a decade, and he worked for the Boston Housing Authority. In 1986, his second daughter, Kahla, was born.

He also lived in Connecticut and worked for Federal Express in the wealthy Greenwich area, where he said he delivered packages to singer Diana Ross, among others. Kirby also said he lived in Atlanta, where he worked at the airport for about six years.

He came back to Annapolis, he said, as his mother struggled with illness. She died in 2009 of complications from diabetes.

Back in his hometown, Kirby decided to seek public office a second time after his unsuccessful 1993 run. He conducted a quiet campaign with a bare-bones website, and he refused to debate his Republican opponent. Kirby won the election handily.

Chuck Weikel, an Annapolis Democratic activist and investment banker, was one of Kirby's biggest backers. They struck up a friendship when Kirby helped Weikel register voters in the city's black neighborhoods.

Since then, Weikel also has helped Kirby financially, paying him to paint his house and for other odd jobs. Kirby also stays in his house as a cat sitter when Weikel travels on frequent business trips.

"He's a low-income guy," said Weikel. "I think he's reflective of the people he's representing. In a Democratic system, that's fair. We shouldn't be electing people based on elitist qualifications."

As he walked along Clay Street, the historically African-American enclave where he lived as a child with his parents and six siblings, Kirby noticed trash strewn in front of a newly built public housing apartment — where Kirby attended a news conference with Gov. Martin O'Malley to announce funding for affordable housing weeks earlier.

"Totally unacceptable," said Kirby, in a suit and tie with a cigarette held between his fingers. He walked into the management office to complain to an official. Turns out, Kirby knows well the family of the woman who lives there.

About 45 minutes later, as he sat down for lunch, Kirby's cellphone rang. It was a friend of the tenant whose house Kirby had complained about, who promised to get the woman to clean up.

"It's deplorable," Kirby said. "Look around you, folk ain't living like that anymore. You stand out like a sore thumb."

nicole.fuller@baltsun.com

Kenneth A. Kirby

Age: 57

Party affiliation: Democrat

Experience: Annapolis alderman, 2009 to present. Chairman of the Housing and Human Welfare Committee.

Family: Single, father of three: Kennita, Kenny Jr. and Kahla.

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