Issues
Eric T., Bel Air: Mr. Nitkin, in your Feb. 13, 2006, Q&A you briefly summarize The Sun's aggressive reporting on an aborted state land sale to a politically connected contractor (at the same price as the state initially paid). A few weeks ago, according to the Baltimore Business Journal and WBAL, "Barcoding Inc." purchased a city-owned building for $500,000 less than the city paid for it six years ago, and $750,000 less than its most-recent appraised value.

Now, there are some signs that the real estate market is slowing down, but something tells me that selling any property at 25 percent of value in this market is, at a minimum, incompetent. A search of the state political contributions database shows that a "Jay Steinmetz," which happens to be the same name as the CEO of Barcoding Inc., donated thousands of dollars to "Friends of [Baltimore Mayor] Martin O'Malley" over the last two-plus years.

Coincidentally (or not?), the Baltimore Development Corp. had been trying to strike a deal with Barcoding for about three years. Mr. Steinmetz was quoted as saying there was "huge risk" involved on their part because the building is in need of major renovations. Regardless of whether that's true or not, it's fairly certain that one of two things happened here ... either the city neglected the property and in turn lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in equity, or the business got one incredible sweetheart deal after making big donations to O'Malley.

Has The Sun done any aggressive investigative reporting on this story? I don't recall seeing any major articles. Did I miss the big story, or did those other news outfits get the facts wrong?

Nitkin: Eric, I don't yet know who, if anyone, on our staff is looking into or has looked into this real estate transaction. We haven't written much on Barcoding Inc. I found a 2005 reference to the company being ranked 11th on the Inner City 100, a listing of the 100 fastest-growing companies in urban areas, as compiled by the nonprofit Initiative for a Competitive Inner City and Inc. magazine.

After receiving your question, I checked the state campaign finance database. You are correct: there is a Jay Steinmetz who contributed $4,400 to O'Malley between 2001 and 2005. It sounds like the transaction you describe is worth looking at. I'll make sure that happens within the paper. Thanks.

Frank Booth, Baltimore: I have a follow-up question to the one I asked a couple of weeks ago about the political shenanigans behind the Maryland Department of Planning move. While Jill Rosen's article was informative on the subject, I don't understand how such blatant political manipulation of running a government can be legal.

From what I hear of [the] Senate hearing on the move, it seems to me that the likes of Sen. [Ulysses] Currie should be in jail. Here is the chairman of the powerful Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, and he is supporting wasting $3.2 million on an unnecessary move of a state agency that would then cost $1 million a year thereafter for rent. The agency only pays $10,000 per year for rent now. The only reason for the move is the symbolism of a state agency in Currie's district. What gives?

Nitkin: Frank, as Rosen reported, about 80 percent of state agency headquarters are in Baltimore, and there are none in Montgomery and Prince George's counties -- the two most populous in the state. I recently had a discussion with a leading state delegate from Prince George's County, who, unprompted, expressed to me her strong desire -- for equity reasons -- to have the state planning department move to her county. She could not understand the opposition from the Baltimore area.

There appears to be a strong sentiment in Prince George's that politicians come to the county for votes during elections, and then do little to help afterward -- that deeds do not follow words. It does appear as if moving the agency will be a costly proposition, and legislative analysts expressed grave concerns with both the expense and the proposal to provide "retention bonuses" for workers, or payments for Baltimore-area employees to keep them working for the state if and when the department does move. I can't say whether the move is a good idea, but I can say that the concerns you are raising are being raised by many others.

Jim Mitchell, Essex: Current language in the Maryland critical [Chesapeake] Bay area laws only recommends a 300-foot setback for construction near tidal wetlands. Research from John's Hopkins [University] recommends 1,000 feet. Local jurisdiction[s] continually waive the 300-foot buffer for developers and allow much closer construction. It has been rumored, via legislative changes, [that] the Critical Area Commission wants to make the 300-foot setback mandatory. Can you confirm this?

Nitkin: Jim, I'm afraid I can't confirm this without doing some research, which I have not had a chance to do. I'll try to get the answer and get back to you.

Charles Shubow, Owings Mills: Now that both Ireland and England have banned smoking in bars and restaurants, do you support the nonsmokers of Maryland (85 percent of the population) in banning smoking in bars and restaurants to protect workers?

Nitkin: That's an interesting way to word the question, Charles. It really doesn't matter what I support. But last week, a bill to ban smoking in bars, restaurants and all other workplaces in Maryland was rejected by a legislative committee. It seems that despite what has happened in Ireland, England, New York and elsewhere, Maryland lawmakers are not ready to adopt a smoking ban for bars.

Victor Arca, Mount Airy: Who was the delegate who stated, "I read the Bible ... " during his explanation of his vote to bring HB 48 (Maryland Marriage Amendment) to the floor for debate Feb 3? And who was the delegate who tried to stop him from speaking on this issue? They refused to journalize the session, and I really wanted to know who these delegates were.

Nitkin: Victor, I was not in the House chambers for that debate, but after getting your question, I listened to the portion you are talking about. You can, too, if you have Internet access. Go to this link, and then select the House session for Feb. 3. I fast-forwarded to the part you are talking about.

The delegate who referenced the Bible, to my semi-trained but often faulty ear, sounds like he has an eastern Baltimore County or northern Anne Arundel County or Harford County accent. I'm not entirely sure who it is (Richard K. Impallaria? Patrick L. McDonough? Robert A. Costa? Perhaps someone could help me out with this.) I'm pretty sure that the lawmaker who interrupted (and whose interruption was waved off by [House Speaker Michael E.] Busch) was Del. Neil Quinter, a Howard County Democrat.

John Brohawn, Catonsville: I want to know if [U.S. Rep. Elijah E.] Cummings practices what he preaches on diversity. His constituency is 35 percent white. Is his staff the same? He won't answer; nor will his staff.