To his friends and supporters, Eric T. Costello is just what the City Council needs: a smart, hard-working community president with financial experience that could save taxpayers money.
To his critics, however, Costello is just what Baltimore doesn't need: an ambitious, sometimes volatile leader more interested in pleasing the powerful than his neighborhood's residents.
Costello, 33, a New York native, has been a magnet for controversy during his relatively short tenure in Baltimore. He was at the center of a heated community battle in Federal Hill over a proposed beer garden. Now he's been nominated to fill a council vacancy through a process critics say was a sham.
"He's had a rough period as president of the Federal Hill Neighborhood Association. There's no question about that," said city prosecutor Mark Jaskulski, Costello's friend and president of a nearby community group. "But some of the things people say about him, they're just not valid. Eric is smart enough — and has enough of a backbone — that he's going to vote for what's right. I can't see him siding with people in power instead of the community."
Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young has come under fire as critics contend that he pushed Costello through a committee charged with nominating someone to fill the vacant 11th District council seat, which represents downtown, Bolton Hill and Federal Hill.
A committee of community leaders, appointed by Young, listened to more than four hours of testimony last month from 14 candidates — and in less than five minutes agreed to nominate Costello, an information technology auditor for the federal government. He was the only candidate with as many residents writing in opposition as support.
On Monday, the City Council is expected to vote on whether to confirm Costello's nomination for the seat formerly held by William H. Cole IV, who left to become director of the Baltimore Development Corp. At stake is a potential swing vote on the council between the sometimes competing budget interests of Young and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. More than 100 residents have signed a petition urging the council to reject Costello's nomination.
In an interview, Costello said he hoped people wouldn't judge him by the process through which he was nominated. Asked whether he believed the process was fair, he declined to comment. He has pledged to be independent despite Young's support and said he intends to run for the seat in 2016.
"If given this opportunity to serve, I'm looking forward to rolling up my sleeves and immediately getting to work," Costello said.
Documents released by Young's office show Costello was one of five candidates who met with the council president before the nomination — though several candidates have complained they sought meetings and were not granted them.
Costello says his critics are wrong about him. He's not a stooge for businessmen or city officials, he says, and can be a hard worker for the district's residents. He argues his background in IT auditing can help save city taxpayers money.
In his eight years working in the U.S. Government Accountability Office, Costello said, he's helped save federal taxpayers $274 million.
"With a background in auditing, I think I can be an invaluable resource to the council in some capacity," he said. "There are opportunities to achieve cost savings."
Costello told the nominating committee that he supports Young's proposal to equip every city officer with a body camera and wants even more surveillance cameras posted around the city. He said wants to expand the Charm City Circulator routes to neighborhoods farther away from downtown and toughen legislation that requires the city to conduct more audits. He also backs a tax-increment financing subsidy for the proposed State Center development.
Costello grew up in Binghamton, N.Y., the son of the town's code enforcement officer. After earning a bachelor's degree in communications and a master's degree in information management, he briefly moved to Northern Virginia before settling in Baltimore seven years ago.
He went to a Federal Hill community meeting and says he concluded the neighborhood association was in disorder.
"The meetings weren't well-attended," Costello said. "People weren't engaged in volunteer activities, whether it was raising money, doing cleanups, doing cop walks. ... It seemed like it could be so much more."
He ran for vice president of the organization and later became president.
In that role, he became embroiled in a heated argument over the Crossbar, a proposed German-style beer garden in Federal Hill that many neighbors opposed. Costello initially led the charge against the proposed bar, but later helped negotiate a deal to keep its occupancy smaller and have it close earlier.
Neighbors accused him of going soft and secretly working with Crossbar's owners and investors. Costello declined to discuss the matter with The Baltimore Sun, except to say criticisms of him were "not true."
Federal Hill resident Virginia Gerhart, a former association board member, said she decided Costello couldn't be trusted when he changed his position on the bar.
"I've seen him lose his temper and act like a 12-year-old or even a 9-year-old," she said. "He really went into this bully mode of insisting that we were all stupid if we didn't go along with Crossbar."
In a YouTube video of an association meeting in March, Costello can be seen pacing during a debate over the Crossbar as residents peppered him with questions. He answered some calmly, but raised his voice at others.
"I will not call for a vote!" he yelled at one man. "The chair will not entertain a motion!"
Keenan Dworak-Fisher, who previously served on the community association board, does not support Costello. "He works really hard," he said. "But as a leader, I give him a low grade. ... When people criticize him, he gets very defensive. He perceives he's being attacked."
Three dozen people signed a letter accusing him of "poor leadership and lack of transparency" on a neighborhood parking issue and disseminating inaccurate information to Rawlings-Blake about the community's stance on creating a historic preservation district.
Still, others hold Costello's work in Federal Hill in high regard. As community association president, he joined the advisory board of the Parking Authority of Baltimore City, the Baltimore City Casino Local Development Council and the Digital Harbor High School Advisory Board.
Jaskulski said he believes Costello's critics are a "vocal minority," while a "silent majority" back him. Among those writing to the council in support of Costello were the president of the Otterbein Community Association, a Ridgely's Delight board member and the Sharp-Leadenhall Improvement Committee president.
The Rev. Alvin Gwynn Jr., pastor of the Leadenhall Baptist Church, said Costello has helped reduce tensions between the white residents of Federal Hill and black residents of Sharp-Leadenhall.
"There has always been a lot of tension between Federal Hill and Sharp-Leadenhall," Gwynn said. "When Eric became president, a lot of that relaxed. His personality led to a more open dialogue about race and race relations."
A coalition of Federal Hill bars and restaurants has endorsed Costello's candidacy.
"We've been on the same side of an issue, such as cleaning and greening in the neighborhood, and we've been on an opposing side of issues with bars and restaurants," said Brian McComas, the group's president. "He has always been fair and reasonable. That may make him unpopular with some, but it's why we supported Eric as our next city councilman."
Young acknowledges encouraging Costello to apply for the seat and that he told committee members he "liked" Costello, but denies applying undue pressure on the committee. Costello's name was offered for consideration by Adrian Harpool, Young's campaign manager. Costello was the only candidate to receive a vote.
Several City Council members said they plan to vote for Costello.
City Councilman Robert Curran said he doesn't personally back Costello but plans to vote for him because he doesn't want to burden the nominating committee with a controversial revote. "This was the process," he said. "I'm not going to ask the committee to go through all of this again."
City Councilman James Kraft said the community outcry over Costello's nomination actually strengthens his support for him
"Sometimes it means they have the courage to take a stand on things," he said.
Rufus Lusk III, a Costello supporter in Federal Hill, said he hopes questions surrounding the committee process don't taint Costello's candidacy.
"Like everybody else in town, I'm concerned about the process," Lusk said. "I hope something can be worked out that if Eric does become a council member, it won't be under the shadow of these events. I think Eric will make a very good public servant. I'd like to see the slate cleaned when he starts."