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City Council unanimously backs Costello, criticizes process

The Baltimore City Council on Monday unanimously approved Federal Hill Neighborhood Association President Eric T. Costello to fill a vacant seat, but several members expressed concern over a process they said lacked true community involvement.

Costello, 33, a New York native, is an auditor in the U.S. Government Accountability Office. After the council vote, he was sworn in by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and took his seat representing the 11th District, which includes Federal Hill, Bolton Hill and downtown.

"I'm really looking forward to working with everyone to make not only the 11th District better, but to help strengthen our city," Costello said. He said he is resigning from his federal government job to work full time on the council. He received applause from the crowded council chambers.

As council members voiced their support for Costello, several criticized a selection process that left some critics outraged. Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young was accused of pushing Costello through the nominating committee. The panel 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. He was the only candidate with as many residents writing in opposition as support.

Young said he told some committee members he "liked" Costello, but he denied lobbying them.

Nine of the 14 candidates sent a formal letter asking for the committee for further deliberation, and more than 100 residents signed a petition urging the council to reject Costello's nomination.

"Everyone who was interviewed was a great candidate," Young said Monday. "Everyone of them could have been Eric Costello today. But the committee chose Eric Costello."

Young and several other council members said they plan to pursue changing the process to a special election so that the voters can decide who represents them. The city's election chief has estimated such an election could cost $91,000 for a single council district

"Was it a process that we liked? No, I don't like it," Young said. "I prefer that we have a special election. That's something that I'm going to speak with the mayor about and the Board of Elections. When the rubber hits the road, the criticism stops with me."

Costello is filling the City Council seat left vacant by William H. Cole IV, whom Rawlings-Blake appointed director of the Baltimore Development Corp.

Costello's supporters praise him as a smart, hard-working community association president with financial experience that could save taxpayers money, while his critics say he mishandled controversial situations in Federal Hill — including a fight over a proposed beer garden — siding with people in power instead of community members.

Two council members — Nick Mosby and Brandon Scott — were absent, citing out-of-town trips.

This is the first time the council has used the selection process it created in 2011 after members chose the successor to Councilwoman Agnes Welch, who retired. The council voted to appoint Welch's son, William "Pete" Welch, to her seat. Council members were criticized for not having sought more community input and subsequently established the process used this time.

In the days before the vote on Costello, Young was making calls to garner support for him, council members said.

City Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector said Young called her Sunday night, advocating for Costello. But Spector said she had concerns that the committee vetting the candidates didn't read hundreds of letters from community members and decided on Costello so quickly without discussion.

"I just thought honestly it should go back to the committee," Spector said. "I said, 'Jack this wasn't done right. You need to send this back to committee and have them do it right.' " She added that the 11th District is a particularly important area, calling it the "economic engine" and "cultural center" of Baltimore.

Nevertheless, when time came to vote, Spector sided with Young, saying she didn't want to delay the process further. The process "didn't make a lot of people feel that it was democratic or fair," she added.

Likewise, Councilman Bill Henry, who also voted for Costello, said he believed the council should strip itself of the power to elect new members to fill vacancies. "Maybe we should stop being the ones who elect people?" he said.

An argument over the Costello vote broke out earlier Monday at the council's lunch meeting, with Councilman Warren Branch telling his colleagues that the old process was flawed.

"I didn't think it was fair," Branch said of the old process. "I thought this was much fairer process. It shouldn't be for me to determine who will replace Bill Cole. It should be up to the people of that district. I hate the fact that the panel was criticized."

Council Vice President Edward Reisinger said much as been said about vote and he wants the council to re-evaluate the process for nominating future council members, but he doesn't want to challenge the committee outcome.

"I have to go along with what the committee voted," he said. "Should they have asked questions? They were all adults. Yes, they should have asked questions. .... I think we need to revisit this, because I don't support this process."

Henry questioned whether it was the objective from the beginning to have the committee vote immediately after its marathon session. Councilman Carl Stokes, who chaired the nominating committee, said the objective was to move as quickly as prudent so the district wasn't without representation.

Stokes added that several of the candidates who objected to the process were also lobbying behind closed doors.

"At least five of those candidates were doing what they accuse Eric of doing," Stokes said. "That is calling me, calling Jack, calling Jim, calling people, having others call us, threaten us, cajole us."

Councilman James B. Kraft said a number of candidates contacted him asking to meet with him. He said he declined because he couldn't meet with all of them individually and so wanted to meet with none. He said he trusted the community members on the panel to make the right decision.

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

twitter.com/lukebroadwater

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