Council calls hearing on lead-paint judgments

The Baltimore City Council called on officials of the Housing Authority and other agencies to explain what's being done about paying judgments of nearly $12 million to public housing residents poisoned by lead paint.

The council also agreed Monday to hold hearings on a proposal to seek corporate sponsorship for city buildings and programs, such as community recreation centers and pools, and on preserving the site of the old Read's drugstore at Lexington and Howard streets, where a lunch counter sit-in protesting racial discrimination was held in 1955.

Councilwoman Belinda Conaway moved for the hearing on the lead-paint judgments, saying she had received most of her information on the situation from The Baltimore Sun.

"We want to know what is going on," Conaway demanded. "All of us look bad."

She said she wanted to hear from the city's Department of Finance, the city solicitor and the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, an independent agency overseen by a board appointed by the mayor.

Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano has acknowledged that people suffered lasting injuries from lead poisoning, but he says the Housing Authority cannot afford to pay the judgments. The authority's lawyers have argued that it is immune from lawsuits and that most of its assets are federal and cannot be used to pay judgments.

In addition to the $12 million in judgments either awarded or settled, the city faces another 175 pending cases with claims exceeding $800 million.

Word of the authority's position made waves recently in the General Assembly, where lawmakers directed the Housing Authority last week to explain how it will pay the judgments.

The council scheduled a hearing for April 26. Conaway said the council wants to know "what is the plan for making restitution. I know the answer can't be, 'We can't afford it.'"

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said the city has a "moral obligation" to pay the judgments.

"It is not simple, it is not easy, but it is our obligation to honor these judgments," Clarke said.

The council set May 17 as the date for a hearing on the proposal by Bernard C. "Jack" Young, council president, to raise money for the city by offering corporate sponsorships of some city buildings and programs.

Young said he's not talking about giving City Hall a corporate name in the manner of M&T Bank Stadium, but he said community recreation centers and pools might carry such names as a way to raise money during tight economic times.

He said he wants to call officials from the city solicitor's office, the Recreation and Parks Department and the Greater Baltimore Committee together to talk about how this might be done.

Clarke and Councilman Carl Stokes called for a hearing on ways to preserve what remains of the Read's drugstore site. The building that contains the walls still standing from the old store is part of the "Superblock" development project, and council members want to see if something can be done to preserve a landmark of the civil rights era.

Students from Morgan State staged their sit-in to protest the store's policy of not serving black customers.

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