Baltimore City Council examines allegations of bullying, intimidation of bicyclists by fire officials

A series of clashes between the Baltimore Fire Department and bicycling advocates has sparked concern among City Council members who are frustrated about how a feud over emergency access to streets with bike lanes has helped stall several development projects.

First, a Baltimore firefighter was charged with assaulting a city employee at a meeting about bike lanes in what a witness says was a “violent choking.”

Then, a bicyclist says a fire department employee cut her off with his pickup truck and screamed, “I still hate you!”

Now, Liz Cornish, director of the advocacy group Bikemore, is alleging that fire department brass sent large vehicles in front of her house while making a video about how protected bike lanes impede firefighting.

“It felt personal, it felt threatening, and made me feel less safe in my home,” Cornish wrote in testimony submitted to the City Council Tuesday. She also said bicyclists have been receiving online threats over the issue.

The council held an oversight meeting Tuesday to question the agency as members consider stripping regulations from the fire code to make it easier for protected bike lanes and developments to be built — a move the fire department is lobbying against. Fire officials do not want the city to replace International Fire Code requirements with National Association of City Transportation Officials’ Urban Street Guidelines.

Fire Chief Niles R. Ford said Tuesday he had no intention of intimidating Cornish when fire officials parked in front of her house to film a video to support their argument. He said he wanted to show how much-needed fire equipment has trouble fitting down streets made narrow by bike lanes.

“I don’t know where Liz Cornish lives,” Ford said. “Quite frankly, most of us would not know who she is if she walked up and talked to us. … The goal was not to intimidate.”

Ford said he was aware of the two incidents of physical confrontation involving members of the fire department, but had not heard of the online threats until Tuesday. Ford said the agency had taken action against some employees, but said he could could not elaborate because they are personnel matters.

Ford said his opposition to changes to the fire code comes from concern for public safety, not animus against bike lanes.

“My job is public safety,” he said. “What I’m telling you is what I think is right.”

Nevertheless, council members took issue with the way the agency is enforcing the fire code.

City Councilman Eric Costello, chairman of the judiciary and legislative investigations committee, has asked the agency to make “demonstrable progress” on roughly 20 to 25 stalled developments and a handful of bike lanes — or, he says, the council will strip a section from the fire code that the Fire Department has been citing to justify delays.

Council members cite four developments in particular that have stalled: the Charles Village Streetscape; Townes at Eager Park; the Woodberry Subdivision; and the former PEMCO site on Eastern Avenue.

“It’s a shame we’re sitting here having this fight,” said City Councilman Robert Stokes. “It’s a shame we’re sitting here in this meeting, instead of moving forward with development.”

The fire code issue arose last summer when some Potomac Street residents in Canton argued that a bike lane on their street, which removed parking spots, posed a safety risk because it narrowed the road too much. The dispute prompted the city Transportation Department to consider removing the lane until Bikemore filed a lawsuit to stop it.

Now the council is considering a bill sponsored by Councilman Ryan Dorsey that would substitute more flexible guidelines for the International Fire Code, which requires 20- and 26-foot street clearances for fire access.

Proponents of the bill argue that most Baltimore streets in the city do not comply with that part of the code. The fire department appears to be inconsistently objecting to bike lanes but not to parking spaces, critics say.

“You should be more of an advocate about parking being removed,” City Councilman Leon Pinkett told Ford. “I just don’t get it.”

Ford said the agency isn’t being selective. He said he accepts that some streets are already too narrow. What he objects to, Ford said, is narrowing streets that are currently wide.

“These other issues are here,” he said. “We can’t change them. To take something that meets code, and turn around and make it not meet code … It’s a challenge.”

In written testimony, Cornish said some firefighters have been antagonizing her group in person and online for 18 months.

“As a result of the rhetoric and bullying culture these firefighters were creating online, I received threats from strangers through both my personal social media accounts and through comment threads on local news articles,” she wrote.

She then detailed several incidents, including an alleged assault on May 14 at the Baltimore School for the Arts at a meeting to discuss a bike lane.

Baltimore City firefighter Charles Mudra is accused of assaulting Austin Davis, a Baltimore city employee who attended the meeting and who lives on Cornish’s block. Mudra has a court date scheduled for Aug. 13. His lawyer did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Then on June 2 a lawyer named Alyssa Domzal reported being assaulted while riding her bike. A person in a pickup truck swerved at her while driving at high speed, stopped the truck in front of her, and screamed, “I still hate you.”

Domzal testified Tuesday that she noticed a BCFD decal in the back window.

“This is becoming personal,” she said.

Then on June 19, Cornish saw the fire truck in front of her house while the department shot its lobbying video.

“Given the history of aggression and bullying over the past year, BCFD leadership showing up on my block to film a video implying they can’t fight a fire there didn’t just feel like a double down on fear mongering, it also felt like a personal message to me and to my neighbor Austin Davis — a threat,” Cornish wrote.

At the hearing, Dorsey called the incident “really upsetting to me.”

“It raises a lot of questions about the leadership in the department,” he said.

City Council President Bernard C. “Jack" Young said the video the fire department shot makes the opposite point of what the agency intended.

“The video shows clearly the fire department can get to the fires on these streets,” Young said. “It clearly showed me that they can respond to fires despite the fact these development projects are being held up. I’m glad I saw the video because it showed me those trucks can get to those fires.”

Costello said he still hoped to work out an agreement between bicyclists, developers, firefighters and the council.

“I’m committed to finding a way not to pass that bill,” he said of repealing parts of the fire code. “But we do need to see demonstrable progress on some development projects and cycle track projects.”

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