Best Use of Taxpayer Funds
Getting rid of Sheila Dixon
Investigators spent months poring over seized computers and financial documents, tracking purchases made through gift cards, linking prominent developers to those cards, and sweating witnesses. Prosecutors spent months more preparing the cases, parrying legal thrusts by the mayor’s defense team, and dodging legal landmines like the state’s brilliant interpretation of legislative immunity. It had to cost millions, and in the end, Sheila Dixon left office with her pension intact. So was it worth it? Yes! Of course, we’d have liked to have seen more substantial corruption uncovered and jail terms for the perps. But even this small gesture has put The Fear into the eyes of city leaders, who for generations have often done business, well, the way they’ve always done business. State Prosecutor Robert Rohrbaugh didn’t clean up this town, but he did disrupt some of City Hall’s traditions, and fighting that kind of crime is at least as important as curbing the drug-fueled action on the streets.
Best Misuse of Taxpayer Funds
Sheila Dixon’s pension
There is a principle that, theoretically, still holds, that to collect one’s government pension one must provide “loyal and faithful” service. The wording is in the ordinance of nearly every Maryland subdivision; though lacking in Baltimore City, a judge has ruled that it is implied. That means that a public servant whose service is less than loyal and faithful—let alone steeped in criminal conduct—could be denied his or her pension benefits for cause. Former Mayor Sheila Dixon, 56, guilty of embezzlement and perjury, is now collecting some $83,000 annually in pension benefits.
Tax evasion! Illegal insurance-writing! A no-show job! Oh my! These are the federal crimes for which Milton Tillman Jr. and his son, Milton “Moe” Tillman III, were indicted this year. The investigation of the Tillmans, who for the past decade shared a commanding presence in the local bailbonds industry, is decidedly white-collar. Yet Tillman Jr. is widely known as a high-profile player in Baltimore’s drug-based shadow economy—a fact that the late Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Luna used while prosecuting the gang that shot Moe in a drug deal gone bad, by calling Tillman Jr. a “violent drug dealer” in open court. But, like Al Capone, the feds instead are going after the Tillmans for financial crimes, presumably because that’s their best evidence. With top defense attorneys attacking the charges, this year’s Best Indictment might be next year’s Best Trial—or Best Plea Deal.
Maryland correctional officers
Since last year’s Best of Baltimore issue: four Maryland correctional officers (COs) have pleaded guilty in federal court to conduct arising from their prison-gang ties, and a fifth was indicted in a federal prison-gang racketeering conspiracy; four COs were charged (two have pleaded guilty) in state court for bringing drugs and/or cell phones to inmates; and, in the civil courts, cases in which inmates sued over gang violence allegedly facilitated by COs have teased out solid evidence that the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services has long known about dirty COs but seemingly ignored the problem. Now that Maryland corrections officials can no longer look the other way, thanks to this plethora of court proceedings, the question is how much more CO-tied crime and violence will happen before the brass regains control of the situation.
Best Local Scandal
The underreporting of rape cases
reporter Justin Fenton’s simple idea—check and see if the city’s rape statistics make any sense at all—could have been done by any alert reporter at any time in the past decade. Nobody did. And so for years, while politicians boasted of falling crime rates, women all over the city were being raped and then told, by police, to forget about it. That it didn’t happen. That their claims were “unfounded.” Baltimore’s reported rape rate was so much lower than comparable cities—and so out of whack with its rate of other violent crimes—that it shouldn’t have taken a reporter to see that something was wrong. But since lower crime rates (illusory or not) are in the interest of every ambitious politician and bureaucrat, the cover-up continued. Now there’s an internal inquiry into the matter and a U.S., Senate hearing inspired, in part, by Fenton’s work. And now the cops and politicians are shocked. Anyone who believes that probably believes the other crime stats.
The Walmart in Remington
This year, a DUDE (Developer Under Delusions of Entitlement) decided he wanted to bring a Walmart to Baltimore. The BDC was all for it, so he went to UDARP, and is currently seeking a PUD. But a bunch of NIMBY citizens interested in SmUG (SMart Urban Growth)—namely, Bmore Local and Baltimore CAN—tried to get the DUDE to sign a community benefits agreement. Others—like the RNA and GRIA and CVCA and the UFCW—questioned details of the plan, including the city’s TIS and LEED certification procedures. FAQs included: WTF? And: what about all the SUVs and CR-Vs? The outcome is TBD, but we’re afraid it’s RIP to this NIMBY.
Best Place to Dump Snow
The harbor is a dumping ground for the uncontained remains of Baltimore’s days. Trash, sewage, detritus of all kinds—if it’s lying around on the ground, it’s likely to end up in the harbor after the next rain storm. It’s an inexorable, barely managed process. But it’s another story when it snows. In the aftermath of this winter’s historic blizzards, the city went into a harbor-dumping frenzy. Why put off until tomorrow, when the melting snow will carry off all that crap to the Patapsco, what you can do today by simply scooping it all up into massive trucks and dumping it in the harbor anon? It was a sight to be seen: a seemingly endless line of dump trucks dropping their loads, which then floated off as little melting icebergs, packed with bottles, dog poop, and crack vials. Now that’s waste management.
Best Ne’er Do Well
Dennis McLaughlin was a Baltimore City Department of Public Works utility repairman in 2007 when he was sentenced to serve 18 months in prison for sexual abuse of a child. During the nine months he actually served, he took more than $12,000 in vacation and medical leave and paid leave from his union’s “sick [leave] bank,” before enduring more than 100 days without pay. Then he returned to work, with city officials none the wiser. The scandal, broken on the online Investigative Voice, resulted in an Inspector General’s investigation but, perhaps unsurprisingly, no criminal charges against either McLaughlin or his accomplices—who filed fraudulent medical leave papers and otherwise covered for him—though the city has sued him and his mother to recover the money. In January, McLaughlin was charged with sex offenses, kidnapping, false imprisonment, and impersonating a police officer; he pled guilty to fourth degree sexual assault and false imprisonment in July.
Pension woes WELCOME TO BALTIMORE
, the downtown billboard says, HOME TO A MAYOR AND CITY COUNCIL WHO TURNED THEIR BACKS ON OUR POLICE AND FIREFIGHTERS.
At issue is the pension plan, half a billion short. If the city were to fulfill its contract with police and firefighters, it would have to pump about $65 million more into the fund than budgeted this year, and more in each of the coming several years, to make up for the 2008 losses (and the previous decades’ underfunding). Instead the council changed the retirement rules, requiring police and firefighters to serve (gasp!) more than 20 years before retiring at half pay. How public safety unions finagled the now-sacrosanct 20-and-out rule is a matter for historians to debate. But if the rest of us have to work twice as long to afford our own retirement, that’s not the cops’ problem. Which is why they’re suing the city for back pension contributions.
Best Road Hogs
East-Side Red Line opponents
The signs boldly state no red line rail on boston street
. What that means is, “Cars Only on Boston Street,” or possibly “No Mass-Transit Riders in Fells Point and Canton.” The east-side opposition to the MTA’s proposed Red Line expansion of the city’s skeletal public rail-transit system has been vocal and organized—much more so than those opposed to having surface rail along West Baltimore’s Edmondson Avenue. Seems to us these road hogs should give transit the space it needs. The proposal, if ever realized, will likely be a boon for the neighborhoods closest to it, as public transit has tended to be wherever it’s gone in cities across the country. Everybody wins when the road is shared.
Best Court Settlement
Vaughn G. et al. v. the Mayor and City Council of Baltimore
For the 13,000-odd Baltimore City public school students with special needs, and for their overworked teachers, the settlement of Vaughn G. et al. v. the Mayor and City Council of Baltimore
, announced in March, is progress. The suit, filed in 1984, sought to force city education officials to follow a 1975 law requiring individualized education plans for children with learning and other disabilities. It might have gone on much longer if not for School Superintendent Andres Alonso’s determination to get it settled. For plaintiff Vaughn Garris, now 40 and serving life without parole for murdering his next door neighbor, the settlement means little. But for the rest of us it’s an illustration of the tragedy of justice delayed.
Local Issue We’re Sick Of
The bottle tax
More like sick over. We know this is a done deal, and you’re probably tired of it too, but can we talk for a minute about how this deal almost came undone? After all, it’s not like Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was jacking up Baltimoreans for an Xbox. She proposed a 4-cent tax on bottled beverages to help close the city’s yawning $121 million budget gap. Faced with cutting city workers or services, a few extra pennies tacked on to your Sierra Mist doesn’t seem so bad, right? Wrong, apparently, as radio, television, and other ads paid for by the beverage industry voiced disgust and outrage (in Bawdamoor accents) at the measure that didn’t appear to exist anywhere outside the beverage industry, much less on streetcorners all across the city. Were people going to go thirsty? Hell no. Were capitalism and commerce as we know them endangered? Hardly. But when it came time to vote on the measure, a number of City Council members got suddenly very squirrelly about it, leading to a last minute 2-cent compromise. Compromise is good and all, and city government is certainly not untouched by special-interest grease, but did we just experience a little flash of red-state red-herring hysteria politics here in deep-blue Baltimore? Not a good look.
Best Lost Voice
When A. Robert “Bob” Kaufman, Baltimore’s best-known socialist, died in December at the age of 78, the obituary writers had a field day. He’d been a gadfly, a troublemaker, a crazy radical, and his own worst enemy. In the end, it doesn’t matter how people try to categorize Kaufman. In essence, he was a voice, one man offering dogmatic perspectives on the matters of our time, and he broadcast that voice as far and as loud as he could, pissing off many in the process. His polarizing role in local affairs is a reminder that being a vocal catalyst for discussion, no matter how polemical or shrill, is a fundamental service to society. It makes others reflect on where they stand, sort out their thoughts and beliefs, and prepare to enter the debate—even if they choose, in the end, to remain silent. Few dedicate their lives to making themselves such lightning rods for discussion or dissent. Thankfully, Bob did.
Best Politician, Getting the Job Done
State Sen. Catherine Pugh (D-40th District) is coasting to uncontested re-election this campaign season, and it’s understandable that no one chose to mount a challenge. Though only a freshman senator, she’s accomplished much in one term—which is hard to do, since freshmen legislators tend to get no respect. The respect she’s gotten was aided by her appointment in 2008 as deputy majority whip, helping to control the Democrats’ procedural advantage in ushering legislation through for the governor’s signature, and no wonder. She came out with a bang in the 2007 session, lead-sponsoring a bundle of passed policy bills involving drug abuse, education, and transit issues, among others, and her record of success only improved with each passing session. For a legislator, that’s the definition of getting the job done.
Best Politician Who Kind of Got Something Done
Click on the “Civil Rights” link on Doug Gansler’s web site (douggansler.com
) and you’ll get a list of some of the highlights of his term as attorney general so far, but you won’t see his biggest success for Maryland. In February, Gansler issued a legal opinion stating that Maryland should recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. While this didn’t legalize gay marriage in the Free State, it did scare famously homophobic Del. Don Dwyer (R-31st District) into (unsuccessfully) attempting to impeach Gansler. Gay rights advocate group Equality Maryland is now saying that Gansler’s opinion has already resulted in a measurable increase on employers’ willingness to offer benefits to same-sex partners. It’s a pretty big deal considering the stagnation of the gay marriage issue in Maryland; maybe that’s one reason why Gansler’s running unopposed in the current election.
Best Politician, Personality
We don’t actually know Her Honor, but the word from people who’ve met/encountered/dealt with her is that she’s a smart, decent person who can even be funny on occasion. And that’s fine—just perfect, in fact. ‘Cause really, we don’t need another touchy, compulsive performer in a cut-off T-shirt or an imperious, entitled shoe-banger running this city. We need a mayor who’s going to do the damn job and not make it all about herself. Even her tweets (@MayorSRB
) are boring, and we’re OK with that.
Best Politician in Need of a Slap Upside the Head
Frank Conaway Jr.
Literally slapping state Del. Frank Conaway Jr. (D-40th District) upside the head probably isn’t a good idea. As a legislator who’d like to allow property owners to shoot trespassers on sight, no questions asked, and with impunity, he just might react by popping a cap in you. Or maybe he’d have his campaign chairman, a drug convict with a history of gun charges, take a shot at you. Or he might attack you with a shillelagh, the Irish club that he proposed as the state’s official walking stick. All of which—along with the facts that Conaway Jr., who has a history of domestic violence against his ex-wife, helped block a bill to help domestic-violence victims, and clogs up the legislative process with an annual flood of strange, go-nowhere bills—adds up to Conaway Jr. deserving a figurative
—slap upside the head on his way out the General Assembly door, should the 40th District voters be so kind.
Best Public Information Officer
Two years ago, Maryland U.S. Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Marcia Murphy won her office’s “Employee of the Year” award, recognizing her “professionalism, dedication, and comprehensive knowledge in [her] area of expertise.” It was well deserved. Murphy knows the boundaries of public information, which require delicate respect when prosecuting federal crimes, and she hews to them with clarity. In an era when government too often conducts itself with brash arrogance in its rush to improperly keep secrets, Murphy stands out because she gives the public what its entitled to, and is respectful and prompt in doing so. We wish there were more of her kind working in government press offices.
Bmore Media bmoremedia.com
The “news” on Bmore Media’s web site has a hollow cheer reminiscent of Brave New World
. Take one recent headline: “It’s jobs, jobs and more jobs in Baltimore and around Maryland.” Unemployment rates over the last year and a half have been the worst the city and state have seen in more than a decade. But by zeroing in on the .01 percent job growth in June, Bmore concocted good news. That’s its mission. The site, which launched last summer, is the spawn of Issue Media Group, a Detroit-based company that creates “alternative narratives” for post-industrial cities: news that leaves out bummer realities such as crime, unemployment, and poverty. In January, Bmore sought $10,000 in funding from City Hall, which declined. Why pay for rosy PR when you can get it for free?
Peter Hermann and Justin Fenton
Though Baltimore’s persistently extreme crime problem may be a symptom of larger failures, such as family life, education, or the economy, it nonetheless tends to monopolize public discussion. This creates an insatiable demand for crime news: its occurrence and impact, its changes and trends, its perpetrators and victims, and those who work to stem it. The Sun’s Baltimore Crime Beat blog (weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/crime/blog
), written by reporter Peter Hermann with contributions by Justin Fenton, meets this demand with rapid-fire, timely coverage that’s more likely than not the first place people can read about it. Sadly, crime in Baltimore calls for the kind of saturation coverage Hermann and Fenton give it. Thankfully, they do just that.
In a recent Sun
column, Jacques Kelly noted that National Bohemian beer is making a comeback, and that people have taken to calling it “Natty Boh.” In another, he observed that Harborplace has become a tourist attraction, rather than a draw for locals. For many Baltimoreans, these are not new developments. But for Kelly, who’s more Baltimorean than most Baltimorons, they provide a suitable jumping-off point for another column’s traipse down memory lane. His nostalgic naiveté makes his columns read like something written in the 1950s, back when he first became a Sun
reader (while taking breaks from his Latin homework). Each one is as precious as peach cake (another recent topic of his), and, if they weren’t just published, we’d swear they’d been discovered in a time capsule. Thanks for the memories, Jacques.
Best Sorry You’re Poor
The Baltimore Sun’s new home section
In June, about a year after laying off nearly a third of its newsroom staff, The Baltimore Sun
started a new section about fancy local houses. With foreclosure rates steadily climbing and 11 percent of the city unemployed, the daily now devotes a portion of its staff and space to profiling wealthy people and their monstrous houses in the counties. Is it really a priority for the public to know that the senior vice-president of outdoor innovation at Under Armour has a 6,500-square-foot mansion with a room just for his dogs, or that Michael Phelps’ swimming coach cooks on oiled bronze appliances?
Best Local Television Newscast
Fox 45 Morning News
Fox 45 Morning News is a model of pre-dawn efficiency on par with the Allied invasion of Normandy. As you blink and yawn and scratch your way to consciousness, anchor Patrice Harris and her friends whip through local news, national headlines, sports, weather, human interest stories, and a bit of on-the-scene reporting with intelligence and sobriety, minus the otherwise requisite news-guy schmalz. It might all feel too industrial, too mechanical, if not for Harris’ and traffic and entertainment reporter Candace Dold’s good looks and man-on-the-street Joel D. Smith’s charm. But, unfortunately, they can’t do everything. You still burned the toast.
Best Radio Show
WYPR-FM (88.1), wypr.org
, noon and 7 p.m.
Baltimore may not yet know it, but in Aaron Henkin, co-creator and producer of The Signal
on WYPR, we may have the next Ira Glass. Henkin’s baritone voice is a natural for radio, and the show’s broad definition of arts and culture means that the listener never knows what to expect to hear on Fridays at noon and 7 p.m
., when the hour-long show airs. Past episodes have included segments on subject matters as diverse as a long-time security guard at the Baltimore Museum of Art, makeshift architectural innovations in Haiti and the poetry of recovering addicts. While not all of these stories emerge from Baltimore, enough do to make us proud to live in a city that has such characters, even if we only get to meet them on the airwaves.
Best Local Radio Personality
Magic 95.9 FM, magicbaltimore.com
Randy Dennis addresses his radio audience like he’s really just hanging out talking to us. He’s been a steady fixture on Baltimore’s local airwaves for longer than we’d care to admit, because it means we’re members of the 30 and Over Club, but actually we are
official registered members of 95.9 FM’s “30 & Over Club,” and every once in a while on a Saturday we try to call in and win something on his regular air shift. Maybe one of these days we’ll get out to one of the “Linercise” events Randy leads and meet him in person, but for now, like over the recent Labor Day weekend, we’re happy to kick back and listen to him on air while everybody calls in to shout out to their friends and loved ones and let Randy know they’re partying with him while he and the DJs rock some joints from the days of Hammerjacks, Odells, and Fantasy’s. Grown and sexy, just like us.
Best Sports Radio
The Scott Garceau show
WJZ-FM (105.7), 1057thefan.cbslocal.com
, 2-6 p.m.
Sports radio on the newfangled FM band is just a couple years old in Baltimore, but it didn’t take fans very long to decide who just kinda sucks and who really sucks. Anita Marks: There, we said it. It seems like every personality on WJZ-FM, aka The Fan, has at least one quality that really irks listeners—too whiny, too old-school, too buffoonish. But the pairing of Scott Garceau and Jeremy Conn in the afternoon has a sort of canceling-out effect that results in the most listenable sports show on the air. While Garceau is knowledgeable and seasoned, he’s not quite engaging, like, say, a Mark Viviano. But Garceau benefits from having a sidekick in Conn who is passionate without being grating, and just goofy enough at times to be likeable instead of annoying.
Best viral video
Jesus Christ Bail Bonds
12 S. Calvert St., 2nd floor, (410) 292-3029, bailoutbailoutbailout.com
Locked up and afraid? Jesus Christ Bail Bonds has the salvation you need. In the 2009 TV commercial (viewable at http://tinyurl.com/lukeof
), Bishop Barry wears a zoot suit and speaks into a gold microphone in what appears to be the closet R. Kelly spent so much time in. A man in a gold suit yells “Bail out! Bail out!” after everything the Bishop says with a smirk that says, Let’s do something that would make baby Jesus blush
. The JCBB commercial was featured on Web Soup
(the even less-renowned spin-off of Talk Soup
hosted by that guy from Singled Out
) in the process of going semi-viral. And if nothing else, it offers an answer to the question WWJD if he got arrested?
Best Tech Upgrade
This wireless network actually launched a couple of years ago, but 4G tech has been a bit slow to catch on, so it’s still something of a novelty. It’s wireless broadband that covers long distances, but delivers decent speed, offered in Baltimore by Xohm originally and now by Clear. But since Sprint introduced the first 4G phones in the United States this year, Baltimore and more than 40 other markets nationwide can get around 6mbps internet access with the latest gen handsets. Shweet.
Best (Broad)banding Together
Now we get that Google’s proposal to build an ultra high-speed broadband network for one lucky community was just a giant, expensive PR stunt. But while other cities—Topeka “Google” Kan., anyone?—were busy thinking of silly things they could do to get in the news, the people behind Baltimore’s application were busy getting as many local institutions on board as possible. Their application, which is available on bmorefiber.com
, was first-rate, showing fiber applications for everything from the Hubble Space Telescope to medical imaging. They even put together a conference discussing what high-speed broadband can mean for the city, even if they don’t get Google to pay for it.
Best Tech Meetup
Innovate Baltimore innovatebaltimore.com
Anyone can hold a meeting, but very few people can get large numbers of smart, creative people to show up. Benjamin Walsh and Tina Tyndal, young but seasoned tech entrepreneurs in the greater Baltimore region, have proved to be both energetic and well-connected enough to attract more than 100 technophiles to meet each other for drinks and make plans to build the next great video game, web site, or software application. Through Innovate and other events—such as last summer’s tech-focused Betascape arcade at Artscape, which Innovate helped curate—Walsh and Tyndal have made their event a must-attend for Baltimore’s tech entrepreneurs.
Best Facebook Friend
The Walters Art Museum
Facebook isn’t the most enlightening stop on your daily travels through the web. But, you’re there anyway, so it’s nice to have a “friend” that’s posting more than cameraphone pictures of their night out and links to Huffington Post articles. The Walters Art Museum posts a mix of museum news—behind-the-scenes pictures of exhibition installations, events and the popular “Art of the Day” from the museum’s vast digital collection—and links to other things going on in the art world. While you’re shamefully keeping tabs on old high school friends or, worse, ex-romantic partners, it’s nice to come across a Greek coin or Russian drinking cup and realize what’s really worth your time. And, because the art is all from the Walters, you can go see it yourself.
Best Baltimore-Related Web Site
Baltimore Brew baltimorebrew.com
Though many of its contributors are veteran Sun
reporters, Baltimore Brew doesn’t pretend to play the role of a newspaper. It’s far from comprehensive, and not always objective. But by being selective—reporting, for instance, on the steel shenanigans at Sparrows Point or the contentious Walmart debate in Remington—the Brew is often able to provide deeper coverage than its understaffed competitors. And the newly revamped home page is just as likely to feature former city transportation planner Gerald Neily’s critiques of the Red Line or urban forager Marta Hanson’s instructions for roasting chicory as a news story. This unusual mix—along with a wry editorial tone—makes for a refreshing concoction indeed.
The Baltimore Snacker baltimoresnacker.blogspot.com
Most food blogs just annoy us—we already know how awesome bacon is, thanks. The Baltimore Snacker appears to have concocted a good recipe for not only not annoying us, but for keeping us clicking back. It goes something like this: one part personable, never-precious reviews of local restaurants and other places that have food; one part links to interesting food news and think pieces from all over, usually with his own even-handed yet drily witty two cents folded in; the occasional recipe that seems designed to share a (hopefully tasty) experiment, not to audition for Top Chef
or Man vs. Food
; and random personal (but not too
personal) posts and funny bits that don’t test our patience. We are entertained, we learn stuff, and we don’t want to smack him. Winner.
Best social-media maven
Some folks use everyone’s favorite 140-characters-or-less social-media tool to keep up with late-breaking news; others use it to garner amusing updates on the social adventures of semi-strangers. Our favorite combination of those two particular flavors comes courtesy of Baltimore Sun
reporter Julie Scharper, who, as @juliemore
, reports blow-by-blow from various city government gatherings and amuses us (and probably herself, which we suspect is the point) by including the stuff that doesn’t make the minutes of the meeting—like, say, when City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young kinda makes a funny. Sun
reporters’ personal feeds are among the best sources of news-junkie tidbits in the city, but Scharper is fun to have around off the clock, too, putting the “social” in social media without overbearing or oversharing.
Yes, Twitter is a waste of time, 140 characters at a time, so if you don’t like it, fuck off and go read about the Best Thing That is Important to You while we follow @iLuvKie
, an important figure in our Baltimore Twitter timeline who tweets chronically (at last count over 47,000 times) and keeps us micro-entertained with her take on classic “What are you doing right now” material such as: Stopping ovr a coworkers house before work cuz he’s making breakfast 4 his family. Idc abt his kids, I’m eating 1st. #hungrytweet
We also enjoy her random outbursts: I Am McLovin
We commiserate on tweets such as: M I G R A I N E :(
We minimize the window upon spotting NSFW stuff such as: I don’t wanna have casual sex or spoon so that’s why my dry ass is not gettin laid. -____-
And when she posts something like: Me and My Bitch lol http://plixi.com/p/44534861
. . . we hope that’s not her supervisor at work or anything, but then we’re El Oh fucking Elling at: I saw a man 2day w/no arms or legs and a patch over one eye. I felt bad 4 him until he yelled out “Show me ya tittaayyyss”
Put her in your Timeline and you’ll also get some positivity: Good Morning Fam. Thanking God for waking me up to see yet another day. Be Blessed everyone!