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At 'public' hearing on Port Covington TIF, officials didn't hear much from the public

At 'public' hearing on Port Covington TIF, officials didn't hear much from the public
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Bernard C. "Jack" Young looked both imperial and lonely, sitting by himself at the long hearing table set up in front of the pillars and flag and eternal flame in the large upstairs room of the War Memorial across from City Hall as aides shuffled around and the hundreds of citizens who had been packed in a smaller room downstairs filed in carrying their own chairs.

They'd moved the City Council Taxation, Finance and Economic Development Committee public hearing on the $660 million 40-year deal with Sagamore Development because they expected a large turnout but then put it in the little room? They said show up at 5 p.m. to sign up to speak. The room felt almost dangerously full while there was still a giant line outside. People inside soon began to chant "Let them in!"

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So Councilman Bill Henry took the center of the floor downstairs and said, with no microphone, that the show was moving a floor up.

And there Young sat, the flame above him casting a shimmering reflection of the American flag on his bald dome. Or maybe it was just his sweat. He was manspreading (to be fair, he was sitting all alone and it's hard to have balls in the summer), and for a moment I imagined that this image would somehow become the sci-fi Lincoln Memorial of Under Armour's shining new city on a hill (or a port, but still) 40 years from now.

Young, like She of the Gavel GIF, is a strong supporter of the Sagamore TIF deal, which gives the $660 mil to Sagamore for "horizontal infrastructure"—roads and super spiffy parks and bridges—and collects the money back on taxes collected from the "vertical" developments, such as retail and apartment buildings separate from the Under Armour headquarters. Carl Stokes, who will no longer have his seat come January, is not. "Philosophically, is Sagamore committed to an exclusive community?" Stokes asked. Henry, whose questions were cheered by the crowd, which at the beginning was made up of nearly 500 people, was also skeptical.

But whatever members of the council said, their actions showed the true dangers of deals like this. If you can't manage a four-hour meeting, how will you manage a 40-year deal? Four hours after citizens were told to arrive, not one had been able to speak yet, so busy had the council and the various experts been talking to each other. The solution, Stokes said just before 9 p.m., was to allow citizens to testify again next week.

There was another hour before we had to leave the building and surely some independent citizens would talk. But my brain was fried and I couldn't wait around anymore to find out. And neither could half of the people the room who had already left. It had been a long day.

I know, if you're a politician, you've got to have hearings and you've got to go on record and you've got to carry water for whoever you've got to carry water for. But you know what, the three Sagamore people who talked first were getting paid. The city bureaucrats, they were getting paid too. Why not let the people go first and then, if you have to ask people to come back next week, you can ask the ones who were getting paid to speak last.

Surely councilmembers—especially Bill Henry—asked some good questions but, again, if they can't manage a relatively straight-forward public hearing about this super complicated deal, how can they possibly manage the super complicated deal?

It didn't seem like an intentional strategy to shut out public voices. But it betrays something at the heart of our city's ever-beleaguered government. The "public" hearing showed who was important. They didn't want to silence your voice, they just didn't give enough of a shit about it to schedule a meeting in which it could reasonably be heard. Technocrats, the kind of people who write deals, don't care about the public. They care about the money, the future, a vision. You are an annoyance. Which is probably why the Baltimore Development Corporation violated the Maryland Open Meetings Act in March when it held closed-door meetings about the TIF. A "public" hearing like this makes it seem like that's where the real action happens and neither the public, nor even elected officials, really matter at all.

The whole thing was both typical and wildly disrespectful to the public who showed up hoping to talk. We've written a lot about the details of the TIF, and nothing really new came out Wednesday, so I'm not going to act as a transcriptionist for technocrats and politicians, but I will note, from the cheers and heckles and conversation of the crowd, that the big concerns are affordable housing, how the project affects the school funding formula in the long run, and the ways in which the process will play out not only in crafting the agreement but also in its long-term implementation over the next 40 years.

I went to the meeting to hear what citizens thought about all of these, but it had been an extremely long day and by the time they were about to get a couple minutes to speak, I was beat.

Just over 12 hours earlier and a block away, the State's Attorney's Office dropped all remaining charges against the officers who had been charged in the death of Freddie Gray. And when I walked out of the "public" hearing I found myself standing at the same place where Marilyn Mosby had announced those charges a little more than a year ago.

These things are related. One of the main points of contention about the TIF is its lack of affordable housing—which is another way of saying that it will further, rather than fight, the city's segregation. Lt. Brian Rice was able to tell Officer Miller, whose trial was supposed to start today, to chase Freddie Gray in part because Gray was in a high crime, mostly black neighborhood. And it was inspiring to see lines of people, not protesting the results of the legal process, but coming to participate in democracy, looking not to the past but the future. People texted me all day to see "how the mood is." You've heard it too and you know they mean: Will there be a riot?

The city has not "blown up" after any of the trials. An acquittal won't set the city off. But the next Freddie Gray will. And it felt like there were a lot of people in the room Wednesday who wanted to address the deep underlying economic concerns that laid the groundwork for the tragedy of Gray's life.

David Simon has said that "The Wire" is a Greek tragedy where the institutions are the implacable gods. Standing in front of the classical architecture of the War Memorial on this hot and humid night, I couldn't shake that thought.

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It is not that the Port Covington TIF is a foregone conclusion, it's just that institutions—like city government—naturally favor other institutions. Some members of government, like Stokes, who kept, too gently perhaps, pushing for the public portion of the forum, might want to hear you just like Marilyn Mosby might have wanted justice for someone like Freddie Gray. But the systems within which they operate makes it mighty goddamn hard.

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