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Five things to know about the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts and how it works with the city

The Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts has been caught in the headlights in recent days to an extent unprecedented in the organization’s 20-year history.

For the past week, the agency has endured a barrage of criticism that began Jan. 5 when it posted a brief statement on its website announcing that it was canceling the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade for the third year in a row.

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In short order, Mayor Brandon Scott called upon BOPA’s board of directors to remove Donna Drew Sawyer as the organization’s CEO by Jan. 15, King’s birthday. Then, he announced that the mayor’s office would mount its own parade to honor the civil rights leader.

On Tuesday, Sawyer resigned leaving BOPA’s board to search for a new leader.

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Below are five things to know about an organization that has been around for decades but has managed to stay under the radar for many Baltimoreans.

BOPA is a quasi-governmental agency.

Quasi-governmental agencies (or “quangos,” in geek speak), are hybrid organizations that provide specific government tasks while operating as private businesses.

Quangos became popular in the U.S. in the 1980s and were designed to create entities that can fulfill government functions without getting tied up in governmental red tape. One prominent example is the Federal Reserve Board.

BOPA was formed as a quango under the city charter on July 1, 2002.

BOPA’s five-year contract with the city specifies that the agency mount an annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade.

An amended contract, which took effect July 1, 2019, designates BOPA as the city’s arts council.

It specifies that BOPA “will organize, produce, support, coordinate, assist, and/or manage, specific art, cultural, and promotional events that may include, but are not limited to: the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade ...”

The contract remains in effect through June 30, 2024.

Donna Drew Sawyer, CEO of Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts, left, held a press conference with Mayor Brandon Scott at the Parkway Theatre last fall. The mayor has called for her removal as CEO.

BOPA didn’t have to remove Donna Drew Sawyer as CEO just because the mayor demanded it.

That’s where the private business part of the quango model kicks in. BOPA is run by an independent, 10-member board of directors. Legally, the board could have stood firm and refused the mayor’s ultimatum to dismiss Sawyer.

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But from a practical standpoint, the board’s hands were likely tied. And in the end, Sawyer resigned.

Scott had said he would not fund BOPA for the 2023-2024 fiscal year is Sawyer remained in her position. The mayor’s letter also threatened to “transition the organization’s responsibilities to other city agencies...”

Quasi-governmental agencies almost always receive some government funding. BOPA’s contract says that the city “shall award funding to BOPA ... to support the expenses listed on the budget that BOPA incurs” to put on festivals and other programs. But the contract also states that the amount of annual funding that BOPA receives from the city can vary.

Before the pandemic, BOPA had annual budgets of nearly $12 million, with roughly $2.5 million coming from city coffers. The city’s money was earmarked for salaries, benefits and the expenses of running BOPA’s office, according to Kathy Hornig, BOPA’s former festivals director and COO.

Agency staff members raised an additional $9.5 million, and used those funds to produce the festivals and to make grants to local artists. In recent years, as fundraising dwindled during the COVID-19 pandemic, city moneys assumed an increasingly larger portion of the agency’s budget.

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The mayor seems to be attempting to make an end run around BOPA.

BOPA’s chief executive is a member of the mayor’s cabinet. If Scott was unable to force Sawyer’s removal, he could still have effectively stopped dealing with her and with the agency.

That process began Sunday night when the mayor tweeted that his office would mount its own Martin Luther King Day parade on Jan. 16.

The amended contract lists the activities for which BOPA is responsible under a section titled Exhibit 1. The agreement also provides that “upon consultation and approval of BOPA, the City may delete any proposed service on the updated Exhibit 1.”

In other words, the city has the power to remove the MLK Day Parade from BOPA’s official list of duties and produce it itself — if BOPA agrees.

In the future, Scott and the City Council could also eliminate other activities from BOPA’s roster, from the Preakness to Artscape to the farmers’ markets, though these removals would also be subject to the agency’s “consultation and approval.”

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Marchers from N-Full-Motion perform in the annual parade in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

BOPA’s contract provides a way to cancel events if it’s strapped for cash.

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According to the contract, “BOPA, after receiving prior written approval [from] the city, may eliminate any programs listed in Exhibit 1 which cannot be properly funded through its independent fundraising efforts, the annual funding ... provided by the city or the combination of both fundraising and annual funding.”

The contract also stipulates that BOPA must notify the city of its plans to cancel an event “within thirty (30) days of the commencement of the scheduled program.”

It’s worth noting that the contract provides just one reason to cancel an event: lack of funding.

In the past, the parade has cost about $15,000 to produce in addition to donated goods and services. But BOPA didn’t claim it was pulling the plug on the MLK Day Parade because its pockets were empty.

Instead, the announcement described the cancellation as “a conscious decision to celebrate Dr. King’s legacy through a day of service rather than a parade.”

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The deadline for BOPA to provide written notice that it planned to cancel the MLK Day Parade was Dec. 17, 2022.

Scott’s spokeswoman, Monica Lewis, said Sunday that before the Jan. 5 announcement, the mayor’s office “was made aware” of BOPA’s plans to cancel the event, but she couldn’t provide the specific date of the notification.


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