The power to corrupt citizen participation and civic process

Citizen participation

The committee hearing by the Taxation, Finance and Economic Committee of the Baltimore City Council was many things, perhaps most importantly revealing of the way power corrupts any due process for citizen participation. The intent of the working meeting of the committee was to listen to the concerns of citizens. But what transpired on Wednesday night was clear evidence of the falsehood of this so-called civic and accountable process.

Just to remind us of the bare facts: The committee would hear residents’ comments on different issues pertaining to the provision of $107 million in public subsidies (via tax increment financing, TIF) by the city to developer Michael Beatty for construction of an office building, housing, parks. The controversial hearing, Wednesday night being the third time citizens had an opportunity to offer testimony and comment, was ushered in by different citizen groups (BUILD, United Workers, UNITE) protesting outside City Hall.

The overarching protests by citizen groups, neighborhood associations, issue groups, Downtown Management Authority and others have addressed the excessive subsidy recommended by the city and failure of the Mayor and her associates or the city council to show why excessive subsidy was needed. Wednesday night’s hearing was especially important as Committee chair Carl Stokes announced that the bill to approve such subsidies had not been properly vetted by the committee which had been rushed to quickly get the bill out of committee for a vote by the council. Why the rush?

Government process violates our human rights

Councilman Reisinger motions for passage of TiFs

City legal advisors seek clarity on disruptive committee process

Councilman Henry calls for a second motion on a 15-minute recess and receives none

But in the midst of testimony and disrupting Stoke’s agenda, the powerful players who run the city according to the Mayor’s and Governor’s intention to repopulate Baltimore with a different race and class, Councilman Reisinger put a motion on the floor to vote on the current legislation as is. Councilman Cole IV immediately seconded it. In an effort to stop this clear disrespect to the citizens of Baltimore and this committee, Stokes adjourned the meeting and walked away. Councilman Henry, vice-chair of the committee, called for a recess while the hall waited in shock as the attorney for the city quickly flipped through her book to find law to determine ‘what next’! After announcing that if Henry’s motion was not seconded, the committee was legally required to vote on Reisinger’s motion, Henry called for a second and received none. Branch joined Reisinger and Cole IV for a final vote of three in favor; Henry abstained after attempting a motion to vote on several amendments in regard decreasing the TIF amount, right for labor negotiations, and transparency of due process. No second motion was received therefore none of the amendments were attached as the bills proceed to the full council on September 12, 2013.

Reisinger, a privileged white man supported by a racist institutional structure and his white colleague Cole IV, disrupted the committee meeting because they knew they could. During testimony Councilwoman Spector, a white woman, called participating citizens ‘peanut gallery’ showing disrespect to the process and prompting the African American committee chair to use the gavel to quiet citizens chanting ‘we are not peanuts, we are the people, the people’. Citizens in upper gallery. Insert: Councilwoman Spector.

Was this process legal? If it is we must be ready to challenge it and change the law which allows this type of human rights violation.

Public:private corruption and power

Wednesday nights’ fiasco is clear evidence of how much power the Governor and Mayor wield in Maryland and Baltimore and their powerful private partnerships. Andrew Smullian, the Mayor’s legislative director was glued to the side of Beatty during the entire hearing. He left only when he was consulting with Beatty’s attorney.

Developer Michael Beatty confers with Andrew Smullian, the Mayor’s legislative director, while the committee waits for legal direction on whether a vote on the proposed bills would be taken.

One might have thought he was Beatty’s attorney; during the hearing, he acted the role. After the hearing Reisinger immediately conferred with Beatty and his strategic consultant (who happens to be a former aide of the Governor). ( See photos at Baltimore Brew)

This corruption enables public financing strategies aimed at rebuilding communities and stimulating economic development for all to benefit the wealthy and powerful and grow income inequality. The city similarly lavished large public subsidies in the form of bonds, TIFs, and loans to the Johns Hopkins expansion project currently underway in East Baltimore which still has not produced the jobs and affordable housing it promised. But this current proposed expansion of wealth at Harbor Point builds not only on the past 10-20 years of successful corruption of public and private power in stimulating the wealth of the top 10%. It builds on more than 75 years of using urban rebuilding strategies, eminent domain, and public subsidies to take land from the public and disenfranchised groups for the benefit of the rich.

In 1968, then Housing Commissioner of Baltimore granted permission to USF&G to build at the Inner Harbor development after Civil Rights leaders and activist organizations protested their racial discrimination in hiring practices. Inner Harbor.USFG.1968. A competitive bidding process was disregarded for them after precedent was set for Sun Life Insurance Company to build at Charles Center. USFG.renewal app. One housing official said in regard eliminating a competitive bidding process: “One of the primary objectives [of granting preference to these corporations] … is to retain in Baltimore the home office of the company which is important to the economic life of Baltimore”.
As a co-founder of BUILD testified at Wednesday’s hearing, none of these projects have delivered on promises to increase employment for local residents or stimulate economic self sufficiency in Baltimore’s majority African American population. Apparently, then and now, those who run the city and those who pay taxes have different definitions of ‘who is Baltimore’. USFG, Sun trust

What are we to do?

So what are we to do when as citizens we experience firsthand these types of non-democratic and non-participatory processes that violate our human rights to participate in our halls of justice. If a working group for proposed legislation goes before the people for comment and this is rudely and strategically disrupted by elected officials, what recourse for justice do voting citizens have? During this fiasco one citizen asked “what country are we in? is this a [so called] developed country”?

We can become more informed and demand that we stop repeating history. The history of failed promises, racial and class discrimination, and inequity in benefit to local residents in community rebuilding go far back in Baltimore. We can hold the people in decision-making positions accountable, we can recommend changes in law and policy through legal and political organizations, we can prepare citizens to become civic leaders, we can vote those who replicate history out of office. We can disrupt city hall processes until they abide by laws that assure equity to all. We can organize and build coalitions across different interests and come out of our identify politics which separates us.

There is no other way forward but to blaze a path which supports ethical behavior in civc processes, based on agreed upon standards for civil participation, and measures to reprimand behaviors which contradict this.

BUILD protesting outside City Hall before hearing for Harbor Point TIF, August 7, 2013

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