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BDC's secret meeting draws public criticism


BDC's plan for a confidential meeting draws criticism The most exclusive invitation of the holiday season might just be the Baltimore Development Corp's briefing next week on the fate of a valuable waterfront property in South Baltimore.

Hundreds of residents have been clamoring for word on what will become of the former Fire Department repair shop. Only 17 people made the guest list. Invitees must RSVP. And no entry without photo ID.

Ever since the city's development arm e-mailed the invitations Monday to the select few, promising them the scoop on what the BDC has in mind, accusations of "shadow government," "cloak-and-dagger" tactics and violations of open meetings law have been flying thick.

The repair shop, smack in the middle of the controversial Key Highway redevelopment zone, is expected to lure competitive bidding from developers once the BDC puts it on the market - which could happen by the end of this year.

Despite the widespread interest in the city's plans for the site and the fast-growing area surrounding it, the BDC limited attendance at its Dec. 6 briefing to some members of a recent task force and asked those people to keep the information to themselves.

"The meeting is by invitation," reads the terse BDC e-mail. "Your assurances of confidentiality will be appreciated."

The missive bluntly adds: inside the meeting, "no printed materials will be distributed."

The spy novel feel of it all left some invitees wondering whether to get into meetings the BDC would next demand DNA samples or retinal scans.

Others complain that this is yet another example of the development agency's secretive ways.

"It's very cloak-and-dagger," says Heather Moore, a Federal Hill South community leader who got an invitation. "I don't think it's right, this secrecy."

Paul Robinson, the founder of Friends of Federal Hill Park, also invited, called the situation "very odd."

They're "making us swear no papers, no talking. What are you gonna do - lock us in a lead room?"

'That's been twisted'

BDC officials acknowledge that the e-mail was a touch John le Carre but say the motives behind it are nothing more sinister than keeping the public informed.

"We thought the community would like to view the [request for proposals] and deserved the chance to," said BDC Vice President Andy Frank. "Somehow that's been twisted into something nefarious."

At the meeting, he said, they'll be discussing the BDC's ideas for "the development controls" of the site - details including how much open space BDC will demand, how high buildings there can go and design specifications.

The secrecy came into play, Frank said, because BDC didn't want developers to get details on what his agency wanted for the property before bidding opened.

"It's so as not to give developers more information than we'd like," he said. "If [those who attend] did share the information, it would not be the end of the world, but we thought we would make the request, which they are free to honor or not."

But John Murphy, an attorney who is challenging BDC's closed-door ways in court, said Maryland law dictates that task force meetings must be open.

Public bodies

According to the state's Open Meetings Act manual, meetings of "public bodies" must be open. And, the manual states, meetings of citizen groups - such as "if the mayor of a town appoints a committee of citizens to make recommendations about the siting of a new playground" - count.

The 17 invitees all served on the Key Highway Task Force. That panel of community leaders, area business owners and developers presented the city this fall with recommendations on how the repair shop site and a handful of other Key Highway properties should be developed.

"This is like this mayor's committee in the example," Murphy said. "I think that's a public meeting."

State Sen. George W. Della Jr., whose district spans South Baltimore, found out about the meeting when someone stuffed a copy of the invitation into his mailbox. "They're having what I think should be a public meeting behind closed doors," he said.

Baltimore City Councilman Edward L. Reisinger, who represents all of the South Baltimore neighborhoods affected by the Key Highway plan but didn't score an invitation, said yesterday that after a long task force process where the city strove for openness, the BDC is now making it seem as though "they have a hidden agenda."

"For BDC to hold a meeting and say it's so secretive, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth," Reisinger said. "Who in the hell are they? That's like some sort of shadow government when you start with that."

Last spring, South Baltimore residents from Federal Hill to Locust Point erupted in protest upon hearing that the city was considering drastically raising height limits along the waterfront - a move sparked by the city's desire to sell the Fire Department repair shop.

Unless the site is rezoned and primed for the possibility of high-rise development, it stands little chance of capturing top dollar on the market.

Stung by the public outcry, the city postponed the repair shop sale and spent much of the year trying to mend fences with suspicious community residents.

Moore said yesterday that as the task force met this fall, she and other community representatives found out that the BDC had met alone with some members of the task force who are developers.

"That was a very divisive move on their part," she said. "My take on this is they're making up for that by giving us the secret meeting we didn't get before."

But, she adds, two wrongs don't make a right - two secret meetings don't make the community any more informed.

"I wish I could not attend it out of protest," she said. "Keeping it confidential is an extremely bad idea."

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