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Hogan keeps housing chief despite lead comments

PHOTO BY MICHAEL DRESSER Gov.-elect Larry Hogan announces the appointments of (from left) Kenneth C. Holt as secretary of housing and community development; Rona E. Kramer as secretary of aging, and David R. Craig as planning secretary. Not in the picture is R. Michael Gill, named secretary of business and economic development.
PHOTO BY MICHAEL DRESSER Gov.-elect Larry Hogan announces the appointments of (from left) Kenneth C. Holt as secretary of housing and community development; Rona E. Kramer as secretary of aging, and David R. Craig as planning secretary. Not in the picture is R. Michael Gill, named secretary of business and economic development.(Michael Dresser / Baltimore Sun)

Gov. Larry Hogan's housing secretary will stay in the job despite calls for his ouster over remarks suggesting that mothers might deliberately poison their children with lead to obtain free housing.

Hogan gave Housing Secretary Kenneth C. Holt a stern talking-to on Monday but will not ask him to leave, said Doug Mayer, a spokesman for the governor.

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"Governor Hogan met with Secretary Holt today and had a lengthy and very direct conversation about his unfortunate and inappropriate statement," Mayer said. "The governor expressed his disappointment and directed the secretary to continue reaching out to advocates, legislators and the community as a whole to reassure them of his commitment to the safety and health of all Marylanders."

But the governor also gave Holt a vote of confidence.

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"Over the past seven months, Secretary Holt has proven himself to be a passionate and competent public servant, and the governor remains confident that he can continue to effectively lead this department and serve the people of our state," Mayer said.

The statement came after 30 Democratic members of the House of Delegates called on Holt to resign because of comments they called "incredibly offensive and insensitive to the plight of mothers of children with lead poisoning."

The delegates' letter said Holt's remarks were "particularly insensitive to African-Americans, who have been disproportionately harmed by the devastating effects of lead paint poisoning."

Holt took part in a panel discussion Friday at the summer convention of the Maryland Association of Counties, during which he called for easing the regulatory exposure of landlords in cases where the children of tenants are exposed to lead. Holt his audience that the current law could motivate a mother to put a fishing weight in a child's mouth to elevate the level of lead in his bloodstream and qualify for free housing at the landlord's expense until the child turned 18.

Pressed by a reporter, Holt said he had no evidence of that happening but that he had been told by a developer it was possible. Maryland law has no provision to provide free housing to poisoned children except while lead abatement work is being done.

Within hours of Holt's remarks, the governor's office said his comments did not represent administration policy, and on Saturday, Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford said Holt had been "off the reservation" in making his "odd" remarks. Rutherford said the administration would not propose any lessening of the liability of landlords.

Shortly afterward, Holt released a statement in which he said he "deeply regrets" his remarks and apologized to anyone he offended.

On Monday, the housing department released a further statement:

"The secretary met with the governor earlier today at which time the governor expressed his disappointment with the secretary's comments. Secretary Holt is committed to working with advocates, legislators, and families to move forward, rebuild trust, and strengthen the already-strong record [the state housing department] has on this important issue."

Over the weekend, Del. Andrew Platt of Montgomery County rounded up the signatures of about a third of the Democrats in the House of Delegates to call for Holt's resignation. Platt said he did not seek signatures from Republican delegates.

The letter pointed out that Maryland law does not require a landlord to provide an exposed child with free housing until the age of 18, but only tells the landlord to provide safe housing while lead abatement work is under way in the original home.

"Your remarks betray a shocking and complete lack of understanding of Maryland law as it relates to a landlord's responsibility to provide rental property free of lead," said the letter. Its signatories include eight delegates from Baltimore city.

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Among them was Del. Samuel I. "Sandy" Rosenberg, a leader in legislative efforts to curb lead poisoning. Rosenberg said Holt reached out to him over the weekend, but he still considered the remarks "outrageous."

"That's something the landlords have done throughout this process — to blame the victim, to blame the parents," Rosenberg said.

The delegates' call was joined by a leading advocate for reductions in lead paint poisoning.

Ruth Ann Norton, chief executive of the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative, said Holt should go.

"We feel that his comments disqualify him to be the head of an agency that oversees affordable housing," Norton said. She also said Holt reached out to her Sunday and Monday and promised to be a "strong advocate" for lead poisoning prevention.

"If that is true, we'll wait and see," she said.

Two top officials in Baltimore, home to many older properties built while lead-based paint was still in use, declined to join the calls for Holt's ouster.

"I understand the concerns of the lawmakers who wrote the letter, and I don't believe I need to weigh in on that decision," said Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. "My focus is on making Baltimore safer."

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young called Holt's remark "the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard" but added, "We all sometimes make mistakes in what we say. ...To resign or not is up to the governor who appointed him and up to the General Assembly who confirmed him."

Holt found a defender in Kathy Howard, who chairs the legislative committee of the Maryland Multi-Housing Association, which represents landlords.

"He's apologized and I think we all need to move on and look beyond rhetoric and at the substance," she said. "What is motivating him to discuss this issue is right on point. He's concerned, and I think many people are concerned, about the need for affordable housing in this state."

Howard said the association was disappointed that the issue of easing liability was off the table, but said there are other legislative and regulatory changes that could help the industry.

Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.

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