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Council erupts over Henson Bell briefly halts reconfirmation of housing chief


Baltimore City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III engineered a short but stormy rebellion in the council yesterday, throwing a scare into the Schmoke administration by briefly derailing the reconfirmation of Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III.

The action embroiled council members in shouting matches and brought two members close to fisticuffs.

"The scars from this are going to cut deep," warned 2nd District Councilwoman Paula Johnson Branch, predicting that last night's fights could divide the 19-member council for a long time to come.

Mr. Bell surprised supporters of Mr. Henson by calling a quick vote when few were present. He skipped the usual prayer and Pledge of Allegiance and other agenda items to jump right into the vote, which resulted in a 7-6 defeat of Mr. Henson's reconfirmation.

The council president's maneuver was an effort to blunt Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's strong influence over many council members. But it backfired. The mayor's allies scrambled to reverse the vote and confirmed Mr. Henson two hours later.

Mr. Bell's group of allies was thrilled with its brief victory. "For two hours we had accountable government," said 3rd District Councilman Martin O'Malley.

But they also widened a rift between pro-Bell and pro-Schmoke factions in the council.

"These were childish games being played out because the majority had the vote" for Mr. Henson, said 4th District Councilwoman Sheila Dixon, who got into a shouting match with Mr. Bell.

But 2nd District Councilmen Anthony J. Ambridge, a Henson critic, and Robert L. Douglas, a Henson supporter, appeared to be ready to fight. Their faces were only a few inches apart and Mr. Douglas cursed at Mr. Ambridge during a loud argument.

Mr. Schmoke, who was not present, reacted angrily to Mr. Bell's tactic. Through his press secretary, the mayor termed Mr. Bell's action "both unnecessary and needlessly hostile to the administration."

Last night's confrontation had been building since last year.

Efforts to unseat Mr. Henson became especially contentious last month as the council prepared for a public hearing Feb. 14 on Mr. Henson's reconfirmation. He technically has been in an acting position since the mayor was re-elected.

The hearing had been expected to be a "St. Valentine's Day Massacre," in anticipation that his critics would grill Mr. Henson about several controversial issues.

But the massacre never happened. Instead, the hearing turned out to be six hours of mostly kid-glove questions, interspersed with heated exchanges from his most vocal critics, Mr. O'Malley and Mr. Ambridge.

Some council members said after the hearing that they should have asked tougher questions; others said that Mr. Henson's critics were on a personal crusade to embarrass him in public.

Mrs. Dixon said that the housing chief's contributions to Baltimore far outweighed his shortcomings.

Even some of Mr. Henson's critics quietly admitted that despite his combative personality, he injected new life into what was an increasingly ineffective housing department.

For the past month, council members have reported that city residents were calling throughout the day -- some urging them to vote for Mr. Henson while others urged them not to.

Mr. Ambridge, the only councilman not to vote for Mr. Henson during his initial confirmation in 1993, mused that other council members were too afraid to stand up to Mr. Henson. Mr. Ambridge alleged that Mr. Henson was vindictive and would not help council members with housing issues if they did not publicly support him.

Mr. Henson denied the charge and said that he treated all council members equally.

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