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Few questions, fewer answers at hearing on housing repairs


In a seven-hour City Council hearing denounced by critics as a charade, Baltimore housing officials faced few tough questions yesterday in accounting for waste in a troubled $25.6 million public housing repair program.

Throughout the hearing, Baltimore housing chief Daniel P. Henson III vigorously defended the no-bid program to renovate more than 1,000 run-down homes. Denying any misconduct, he said that if mistakes were made, it was because of the urgency of easing a shortage of public housing.

"I am an impatient man," he said. "I'm impatient for progress. I hope if I'm successful, impatience will be known as the hallmark of my administration of the Housing Authority."

His explanations left several council members dissatisfied. Left unanswered were the exact number of homes repaired under the program, the total cost of the work and the method used to select companies to do the work.

"I think we have at this point just scratched the surface," 4th District Councilman Lawrence A. Bell III said, noting that he was dismayed by long but vague answers from top housing officials. "I do not think the format of this hearing was designed to cut to the meat of what was going on."

The hearing was aimed at well-publicized problems in the no-bid repair program. The federal government is demanding that the Baltimore Housing Authority come up with $725,759 because contractors inflated costs.

A three-part series published last month by The Sun showed that a quarter of the program's funds went to friends and relatives of housing officials and the mayor, while millions went to contractors with little or no experience, many of whom did poor work.

At least five council members likened yesterday's hearing to a stage show directed by Council Vice President Vera P. Hall. Mrs. Hall, who chairs the council's housing committee and fought to keep the hearing under her watch, is a Schmoke loyalist and the mayor's floor leader -- the person who shepherds administration bills through council.

"All we're hearing about is how well the housing commissioner believes he and his staff were doing their job," First District Councilman Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr. said.

Others who left dissatisfied included 3rd District Councilman Martin O'Malley, 2nd District Councilman Carl Stokes and City Council President Mary Pat Clarke.

Parade of officials

The meeting was to last only two hours, but it took that long for the controversial program to be examined. Before noon, a parade of housing officials stepped forward to talk about the history of vacant homes in Baltimore and the routine for awarding contracts.

When Mr. O'Malley tried to prod Mrs. Hall to get to the point, she ruled him out of order.

She also tried to silence Mr. Stokes when he rose to describe one woman's difficulty with getting the Housing Authority to repair her home.

"You have orchestrated a charade process," said Mr. Bell. "People here know what's going on."

Mrs. Hall described the hearing as fair and complete. When she drew the session to a close at 5:15 p.m., she said, "I realize it was a big undertaking to get facts on the table. It's clear to me that there were problems with this effort, but not the way we thought there were."

Several council members -- including Mr. Bell and Mr. Stokes, who are vying with Mrs. Hall for the council presidency -- said they want to convene a follow-up inquiry. Council members asked the housing agency for a list of each home repaired, the inspectors who approved the work and other documentation.

More than a dozen people lined up yesterday to give Mr. Henson's efforts overwhelmingly positive reviews. They included a contractor who participated in the no-bid program, community leaders, tenants of public housing, the head of the Maryland Minority Contractors Association and two housing commissioners in charge of overseeing the agency.

"I'm not saying everything is perfect, but he's doing what he has to do to house people," said Anna Warren, who has lived in the Claremont Homes for 37 years.

A handful of people showed up to question the program. Among them was Suprenina Weedon, who rents a home in the 800 block of North Ave. for $370 a month. Her ceiling has collapsed three times because of a leaking toilet and tub, she said.

Mr. Henson said there was more to her complaint, because her toilet was blocked at least once and was improperly installed.

The toughest questions came late in the day. Mr. Henson, who said the total cost of the no-bid program might be as high as $29 million, deflected most of them.

Mr. O'Malley speculated that if a review of 65 of the 1,100 repaired homes showed $725,000 in overcharges, the total amount overcharged might be close to $9 million.

"That's if you accept the [federal auditors] are correct," said Eric Brown, Mr. Henson's deputy. "We dispute that amount."

Mr. O'Malley asked whether housing officials plan to review each home repaired to determine whether the public got its money's worth. Mr. Henson said that wasn't necessary.

Questioned about awarding contracts to friends with little contracting experience, Mr. Henson replied, "I do not tolerate conflict of interest."

Presented with the Housing Authority's official list of contractors who worked on the program, council members quickly realized it wasn't complete. A contractor who worked on the program stepped forward with glowing testimony about the agency's work, but council members couldn't find him on the list.

Mrs. Clark also expressed surprise that Mr. Henson did not have detailed statistics on the number of units repaired.

"If nothing else, it points out the total mismanagement of this Housing Authority," said Mrs. Clarke, who is challenging the mayor in his bid for a third term. "I presumed the first thing we would learn here is the units that have been done, and the extent of the work. The only contractor who spoke was not even on the list."

Mr. Henson promised to submit more information in writing. "If you need another hearing, I'm available," he said.

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