Paying the price for lax enforcement


THE hospitalization of 11 South Baltimore residents for possible chemical exposure may or may not have anything to do with a warehouse where toxins have been stored illegally. But the scare underlines a bigger problem -- the city's habitual failure to go after chronic code violators.

The public health threat surrounding a derelict Clarkson Street warehouse might never have happened had city government made sure that a 1994 code violation was corrected. But nothing apparently happened. Not only was poison stored on the unsecured premises -- where curious neighborhood children could come in contact with it -- but exposed asbestos was around as well.

Courts are likely to determine the culpability of Edward L. Birtic, who is the target of a wider state criminal investigation. But the Clarkson Street warehouse is just one of dozens of abandoned industrial sites around Baltimore where the city has failed to enforce housing and safety codes.

Add to this thousands of vacant residential buildings that have ruined once-thriving neighborhoods. They did not rot overnight. But the more the city tolerated such decay, the clearer the signal that authorities did not care what was going on.

Toward the end of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's 12-year administration, then-Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III took long-overdue steps to beef up the prosecution of the most disdainful violators. But the problem already had gotten badly out of hand.

The Clarkson Street incident should clearly demonstrate to Mayor Martin O'Malley that all aspects of code enforcement must become a top priority. These are serious matters. Housing code violations, for example, are criminal offenses. But because of the city's lassitude, they have come to be regarded as laughing matters.

As a result of housing officials' incompetance, careless removal of hazardous material at the Clarkson Street site has exposed the city government to potentially huge liabilities. Heads should roll.

A strong message must be sent to property owners that business as usual will no longer be tolerated.

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