Ruppersberger declines forums on land dispute

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Usually it's hard to get him to stop talking.

But Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger hasn't had much to say lately when it comes to a heated property rights dispute that appears destined for the November ballot.

In recent weeks, Ruppersberger has declined debates, radio talk shows and other invitations to explain a neighborhood renewal strategy that relies on increased governmental power to seize land. His absences have frustrated critics, who say the executive wants to appear only in forums he can control.

"Dutch keeps saying there is a lot of misinformation out there," said Del. James F. Ports Jr., a Perry Hall Republican who is a leading opponent of the renewal strategy. "If there's a lot of misinformation, they've been given numerous opportunities to come and set the record straight. But they are afraid to. They are running from the issue."

Ruppersberger receives about a half-dozen speaking requests each week to explain his stand on Senate Bill 509, a measure that gives Baltimore County the authority to condemn privately owned land in Essex-Middle River, Dundalk and Randallstown, and sell or give it to developers. He hasn't accepted any in at least a month.

He said he feels little pressure to accept speaking engagements during the summer, when, he said, voters aren't paying attention.

"I made it very clear I was going to let the people decide on the issue," Ruppersberger said. "I was going to educate the public through meetings with staff. That's exactly what we're doing. We have requests all the time. There are other issues out there beside 509. People do not focus on issues until after the summer."

Don't tell that to the folks who braved the heat yesterday to attend a rally and picnic at Putty Hill Park in Parkville to show their support for a referendum to block the proposed condemnation. The red-white-and-blue balloon decorations kept bursting in the 90-degree temperatures. Sporting "Official Rabble Rouser" buttons, members of the Essex-Middle River Community in Action group were armed with ballpoint pens and clipboards to collect signatures of registered county voters. They need nearly 25,000 signatures by Friday to bring the condemnation bill to a November referendum.

The General Assembly approved SB 509 last spring, at Ruppersberger's urging. He argued that the government needs the power to condemn homes and businesses to breathe life into stagnant neighborhoods. He envisions an upscale village of homes, shops and marinas in Essex-Middle River.

But critics said they felt blind-sided, because community meetings were never held and no outreach efforts were made before the legislation was introduced. Opponents mobilized quickly after the law's passage, mounting a petition drive to reverse what they call a land-grab that will benefit wealthy developers at the expense of working-class residents.

Sensing momentum against him, Ruppersberger surprised many observers when he agreed to sign their petition in May. At the same time, he challenged the law's opponents to a series of seven debates - one in each County Council district - to begin after Labor Day.

"As long as we have this kind of informed discussion on the facts, I'll be happy no matter what happens in November," Ruppersberger said at the time.

The absent civil servant?

Since then, the discussion has been largely one-sided.

On Tuesday, Ruppersberger reversed a commitment to participate in a taping of "The Bottom Line," a WBAL-TV public affairs show hosted by Kweisi Mfume, president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The administration would not send another representative, leaving producers to rely on lawyers who represent developers to speak in favor of the law. The show aired Saturday.

"We weren't going to go this route, but with Dutch not showing up, we kind of [had] to," said Wanda Draper, the show's executive in charge of production.

Earlier, a debate organized by a local newspaper in Essex was scrapped when Ruppersberger declined to attend.

Instead, Ports read a speech to a folding lawn chair with a photograph of Ruppersberger pinned to the webbing.

"When Dutch said he was going to have an information campaign and an informed discussion, it did not mean he was going to show up everywhere he was invited," said Elise Armacost, a Ruppersberger spokeswoman.

"With a lot of these debates, you end up going over the same issues over and over again, and the same callers are calling in over and over again. As far as Dutch is concerned, it doesn't do him a lot of good to keep saying the same things to the same people."

Additionally, Ruppersberger hasn't been around much to take part in a dialogue. He spent early June in the southwestern United States, followed by conferences in Ocean City on June 12-13 and in Frederick Wednesday through Friday.

Literature about the law

Ruppersberger's staff is grappling with just what it can print and distribute about SB 509 without violating laws that prohibit using taxpayer funds to promote election issues.

The county might discard a handout it has printed that answers basic questions about SB 509. Some administration officials think the brochure might read too much like an advocacy piece.

"Even if something passes legal muster," said Armacost, "it may not be the right thing to do."

Swaying the likes of those at yesterday's gathering in Parkville would be quite a challenge. Among them were Jigantree Pasram, 70, and her husband Harry, 75, who moved from South America to Baltimore 21 years ago.

"We have eight children and lived in an apartment, but I worked at McDonald's, saving all my pennies," said the woman, who now owns a convenience store. "We saw that our children got an education. They're all drug-free, alcohol-free, cigarette-free and jail-free. They got married, and we have 12 grandchildren."

The couple bought a lot on Old Eastern Avenue, cleared the brush with machetes, and eight years ago built a home with six bedrooms "where I can baby-sit my grandchildren," Jigantree Pasram said. "Now, they say I have to sell it to them and move out."

Pasram, who doesn't drive, walks daily to stand outside shopping centers in Hawthorne and Middlesex and the Motor Vehicle Administration office in Essex to collect signatures on anti-condemnation petitions. She estimates that she has collected 60 to 100 signatures every day this month.

Richard Impallaria, a leader of the petition drive, said yesterday that he couldn't offer an accurate count of signatures because the roughly 9,000 gathered during the past week hadn't been validated.

But Pasram's son-in-law, Sesh Lal, didn't harbor great hope. "[I'm] afraid they have gone too far and can't turn back," he said, referring to county officials. "Revitalization is all about others, not for the people who live there."

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