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Culture of secrecy hid Grand Prix's failure

The embarrassing and unfortunate financial failure of the Baltimore Grand Prix was caused by a pervasive culture of secrecy and privilege within City Hall and at Baltimore Racing Development.

Had more facts been available to the press and the public, it would have been abundantly clear that the race was in jeopardy even in its earliest planning phases. The failure to secure a lead sponsor was, in retrospect, a body-blow that should have led to the race's cancellation or postponement.

Instead, a small group of insiders within BRD and City Hall reassured the race's political sponsors that everything was in hand. And within city government, I was told, people with dissenting opinions about the race were eventually no longer invited to meetings.

Propagandists and politicians use an over-reliance on secrecy to shape popular opinion and suppress dissent. But the success or failure of the Grand Prix was not a matter of opinion; it was a matter of financial facts. And the facts show that as a business proposition, it was a dismal failure — ultimately indebted for more than $12 million and having snubbed multiple creditors, including the city, state, and multiple small businesses.

The Baltimore Sun shed light on many aspects of the race. However, despite their efforts, reporters were only able to puncture the "veil of secrecy" around the race periodically — and often after the fact or within a limited scope.

Baltimore City should have made all of its contracts and correspondence with BRD open and a matter of public record. It should have required BRD to enter reviewed financial statements into the public record every 60 days. Had everything been more open, the insiders who thought they could turn it around would have had a clearer picture, and also would have had to answer to informed public inquiry.

Instead, intelligent public debate was starved by a lack of facts. Baltimore Sun opinion writers supported the race based on assumptions promoted by BRD and the city that turned out to be speculative or false. The ensuing public debate was accordingly limited to ad-hominem attacks that did not further any deeper understanding of the pertinent questions.

I sued Baltimore City last summer to stop what I perceived to be an illegal removal of trees. But this was prompted by secrecy and incompetence. We asked for a copy of the city's tree plan, from either the city or BRD, and got nothing. We asked for assurance that no more trees would be cut before the plan was released, and still more trees were cut. As a result of our suit, the city did release its tree plan, and the count of trees actually cut dropped from 139 to about 40. And now, taxpayers will be paying for the replanting — which BRD was supposed to cover.

We are moving into a new era where secrecy in city government is no longer acceptable. The default position for all city information should be "open," and that includes the dealings of Baltimore Development Corporation and economic development partners like BRD.

In the age of "Occupy" and the "Arab Spring," we need to liberate reporters up from the clerical task of "freeing information" so they can do the important inquiry and analysis for which they were trained. Only overwhelming public pressure can free this information.

If and when Baltimore City enters into another agreement to try to revive the Grand Prix, we must demand 100 percent openness. Because if the deal can't withstand thorough public scrutiny, it almost certainly is a bad deal for Baltimore.

David Troy, a Bolton Hill resident, is CEO of 410 Labs, a Baltimore-based technology development firm. His email is dave@410labs.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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