In nominating developer Daniel P. Henson to be the city's new housing commissioner, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has opted for a man who has built a solid reputation for getting things done. That's good. But all good things come with a price. In Mr. Henson's case that price is a nightmarish collection of conflict-of-interest situations which must be resolved before he can be confirmed by the City Council.
We hope these legal complications -- which suggest no improprieties -- can be successfully ironed out. In many demonstrable ways, Mr. Henson is the type of leader the city's housing department and its twin bureaucracy, the Housing Authority, need. After working in management jobs with the U.S. Small Business Administration and the U.S. Department of Commerce, he went into private business. For nearly a decade, he has been a principal in Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse and in his separate development company.
That's where the problems begin. Struever Bros. specializes in creatively financed projects, using public-private partnerships; its partner in many of these projects is the city housing department.
The Henson Co., for its part, specializes in "difficult, large-scale, build-to-suit urban real estate development projects," according to Mr. Henson's resume. Again, its partners may include the city or other governments. An example is the Henson Co.'s involvement in the $161 million Christopher Columbus Center for Marine Research and Exploration on the Inner Harbor.
Mr. Henson's equity interests in both companies present serious conflict-of-interest complications. But after five years of mismanagement, the housing department and the Housing Authority are in such dire need of expert leadership the mayor feels he has to turn to Mr. Henson. Lawyers are now working overtime to build a buffer between the nominee and his business holdings. Even so, "there clearly will be some projects where [Mr. Henson] cannot be involved in decision making," says the mayor. That is troubling.
Daniel Henson gets high marks from many people who have worked with him. While he can give an impression of abrasiveness because he does not tolerate fools, he is a good listener. He hates disorderly projects and he can delegate. "He is young and tough -- and he certainly knows real estate," says an official who was instrumental in Baltimore's urban renaissance in the 1970s. That's just what this city's housing department needs right now -- but only if Mr. Henson's conflicts of interest can be resolved.