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Baltimore’s inspector general says former Mayor Young within rights in West Baltimore nonprofit dispute

Michelle Suazo, executive director of The Food Project, is pictured in November, shortly after learning her group would have 30 days to vacate the former Samuel F. B. Morse Elementary School. In addition to fresh food giveaways twice a week, The Food Project provides jobs and training, education, social services and mentoring in the Carroll Ridge community. Seated at the table stocked with fresh soup and rolls is Jerel Wilson, on staff at The Food Project. Nov. 10, 2020.
Michelle Suazo, executive director of The Food Project, is pictured in November, shortly after learning her group would have 30 days to vacate the former Samuel F. B. Morse Elementary School. In addition to fresh food giveaways twice a week, The Food Project provides jobs and training, education, social services and mentoring in the Carroll Ridge community. Seated at the table stocked with fresh soup and rolls is Jerel Wilson, on staff at The Food Project. Nov. 10, 2020. (Amy Davis)

The Baltimore office of the inspector general found no evidence of wrongdoing by former Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young in his decision to terminate an agreement in November with a city-based nonprofit and food distribution service occupying a vacant West Baltimore schoolhouse.

In the inspector general’s report, released Wednesday, Isabel Mercedes Cumming said Young acted “within [his] rights” to terminate the right-of-entry agreement with U Empower of Maryland, which runs The Food Project out of the Samuel F.B. Morse Elementary/Middle School building in Carrollton Ridge. Cumming also said Mayor Brandon Scott’s administration was within its rights to rescind Young’s termination notice in December, allowing the organization to stay in the building.

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The office initiated the investigation based on a complaint it received alleging “potential mismanagement” by the Young administration in its eviction of the nonprofit. The complaint also cited concerns about a lack of oversight by the Department of General Services and the Comptroller’s Office of Real Estate in securing lease agreements with the two nonprofits.

The report noted that the city’s failure to solidify lease agreements with the two nonprofits occupying the schoolhouse may have cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars.

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“The City lost the opportunity for $127,890 in revenue and incurred operational expenses of approximately $745,979,” over an 18-month period, according to the report.

The school building became central to a dispute last fall when Young ended the city’s agreement with U Empower of Maryland but allowed another nonprofit, I’m Still Standing, to remain there. The inspector general said that while U Empower of Maryland provided the necessary documents to the city’s Department of General Service to show proof of financial and program sustainability, I’m Still Standing did not.

“[I’m Still Standing] supplied only partial information and several of its documents were deemed not sufficient,” Cumming wrote. “At the time the investigation concluded, [I’m Still Standing] had yet to provide all the requested information.”

Cumming’s office also found that I’m Still Standing violated its agreement with the city by providing access and use of a portion of its designated second floor space to another, unnamed, entity without the city’s knowledge and approval.

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Both nonprofit groups’ agreements with the city expired in June, 2019, but both remain there now.

Michelle Suazo, who heads The Food Project for U Empower of Maryland, said she had been negotiating the lease with the city in November when she learned the group had 30 days to vacate the premises.

The move would’ve been devastating for the organization, Suazo said, which operates a food distribution service out of the school’s kitchen and employs several young people. They also run Seedy Nutty, an original snack creation now available in some local stores.

Suazo said she still does not have a lease, citing bureaucratic delays in city government.

“Everything just seems to be slow and inefficient,” Suazo said. “But we can’t complain; we’re just so grateful to be here. We will continue to serve the community.”

Lawana Perkins, director of I’m Still Standing, could not be reached immediately for comment.

In a Wednesday interview, Young said his decision to end the agreement with U Empower of Maryland stemmed from tension in the building between the two groups.

He cited a police report from January 2020, describing an assault by a 24-year-old U Empower worker on a 69-year-old training coordinator at I’m Still Standing, ending with the young man threatening to get a gun. The young man was later sentenced to unsupervised probation, online court records show.

Suazo has confirmed the details of the incident, but said the mayor’s office did not cite the altercation originally as a reason for the termination notice. She described the event as an isolated incident, and pointed to the organization’s mission as a safe haven and employment opportunity for an underserved area.

Young said he did not know that I’m Still Standing had not provided sufficient documentation, or had taken up more space than specified in the agreement.

He also said he doesn’t think nonprofits that provide essential services for the community should be charged to occupy what would have been a vacant space.

“If you’ve got a group in there, why would you charge them anyway?” Young said. “If you’re charging them and they’re not generating revenue, how are they going to survive?”

Scott’s office did not respond immediately to a request for comment. In December, his office said U Empower of Maryland would have a lease with the city within 90 days.

Until the lease agreements are finalized, the city continues to be responsible for all expenses related to the operation of the Morse building without receiving rent or fees for use of the building from the nonprofits, according to the inspector general’s report.

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