Drug-free zones among issues set for council's 1st Net meeting


Baltimore City Council will return from its holiday recess tonight to broadcast its first meeting over the Internet, when members will introduce legislation to save the city's drug-free zones.

Last year, Council President Lawrence A. Bell III spent $150,000 on the high-tech information system that includes digital cameras in the council chambers. Previously,the council relied on camera operators and the city's cable channel to transmit meetings.

Despite criticism for the spending while the city faces a $25 million budget shortfall next year, Bell has called the technical addition a revolutionary step in public access that makes Baltimore one of the first cyberspace councils in the nation.

Tonight, residents with access to the Internet will be able to watch the inaugural cyber council meeting through its site: http: //www.baltimorecitycouncil.com. Viewing the transmission will require residents to have downloaded the free RealPlayer G2 audio program from the Internet in addition to having at least a 28.8 bps modem.

"It will promote not only the City Council, but the city as a whole as futuristic and accessible," Bell said. "Hopefully, it will be a role model for other governments."

The technology will allow interested residents who miss a council broadcast to view it later by visiting the site, which will contain excerpts from prior council meetings.

"It's going to work very well for lobbyists and activists trying to track council members and legislation," said David Brown, a Bell aide who helped initiate the project.

When the Web site was unveiled in October, Bell was criticized by city Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III, whose department has been handling council broadcasts. Henson said he could have provided the services without the expense and the city could expand its Web site.

"It's a capital investment," Bell said. "We want it to be an educational tool, and we want students to be able to use it in their model legislatures."

One of the first issues to be introduced at the meeting will be a bill to save the city's drug-free zones.

Two weeks ago, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke asked the council to eliminate the law established in 1989 that allows police to search and arrest loiterers in designated drug-free zones. The zones tend to be located around schools and in high-crime areas. Prosecutors and judges oppose the law, questioning its constitutionality as it relates to search and seizure.

Fed up with illegal drug markets in his 4th District, Democratic Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. vowed in May to determine whether the drug-free zones were working. Mitchell found that between January and September, 25 of 26 misdemeanor loitering arrests in the 60 zones established around the city were not prosecuted.

In a bill he plans to introduce tonight, Mitchell wants to add a civil penalty to the law that could take the matter out of the courts hands and leave it as a tool for police to investigate complaints. Under the criminal law, convicted violators face 30 days in jail and a fine not to exceed $400.

Mitchell is proposing a $500 civil penalty for loitering in a drug-free zone that would be administered by the city's newly established Environmental Control Board.

Pub Date: 1/25/99

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