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Self Preservation

Kathleen Kotarba survives apparent CHAP coup

Photo: J.M. Giordano, License: N/A

J.M. Giordano

Supporters cheer Commission for historic and architectural preservation executive director Katheleen Kotarba as she arrives at City Hall.

A special meeting of the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) was called on Monday in what was widely believed to be an attempt by the mayor’s office and the Department of Planning to depose Kathleen Kotarba, the commission’s executive director. If it was a power-grab by the mayor, it failed when the commissioners ruled that they were opting to “take no action” on the matter before them.

Dr. Helena Hicks, a CHAP commissioner from 1995 until July of last year, claims that Tom Stosur, the director of the Department of Planning, came to a CHAP retreat on Jan. 22, 2011 and told the board that, “if we could not agree with her [the mayor] on items in a way satisfactory to her, she would get rid of the commissioners.”

Hicks and three other commissioners were subsequently removed at the end of their terms. One of them, Eva P. Higgins, says she was not at the retreat on Jan. 22, but she also felt like she was removed from office over development issues.

“I certainly think the mayor has acted in such a manner,’” she says. “She wants to push development forward at any cost. It is part about the Mechanic [Theater], partly about the west side [of downtown] and the Superblock. She wants her legacy to be development.”

The four new members appointed by the mayor were only recently sworn in and have had only one meeting, on Aug. 14, to address the issue of the Mechanic Theater. David S. Brown Enterprises, an Owings Mills-based developer, applied in May for a permit to demolish the building, lending support to the idea that the mayor wants to remove Kotarba so that the plans can go through quickly.

Director Stosur would not comment on the Jan. 2011 meeting or the purpose of Monday’s special meeting, saying only that it was a personnel issue.

CHAP is made up of 10 commissioners representing various stakeholders in preservation and development issues. The commission is part of the Department of Planning, and commissioners are appointed by the mayor. The director, however, is not appointed by the mayor and can only be appointed or removed by a vote of the commission itself.

“The executive director of CHAP is an unusual position within city government because she works for the commission, not the mayor or the planning director. It was set up this way on purpose—knowing that the director of the city’s preservation commission might encounter controversial issues. This independence is essential for maintaining an appropriate balance within city government, and we’re concerned that the effort to fire Kathleen is intended to undermine this independence,” says Eli Pousson, a field officer for the preservation group Baltimore Heritage, and one of the 40 members of the preservation community who rallied in support of Kotarba and also attended the meeting.

Councilman Bill Henry (D-4th District), who serves on CHAP, moved that the meeting be closed to the public, resulting in a unanimous vote to move the meeting to a smaller, closed-door venue in City Hall.

Before the commission was able to move chambers, Dr. Hicks, who was instrumental in preserving Read’s Drug [“Helena Hicks,” Feature, Feb. 22] stood and said “By city ordinance, this must be an open meeting. By law, anything you do will be null.”

Though the chair disagreed, Thomas Ward, the now-retired judge who drafted the city ordinance that created CHAP in 1964, told City Paper by phone that “the law is that, for a personnel matter, they can exclude the public. That includes salary and disciplinary matters. But Kotarba is of a higher standing. In my opinion, that would elevate her beyond matters of personnel. To call this a personnel matter is like saying that if the Senate tries to depose the president of the United States, it is a personnel matter.”

Judge Ward went on to say that he believes that the reason for the meeting is the mayor’s attempt to “abrogate the special listing of the Mechanic Theater. But you can’t abrogate under the ordinance.”

“This City Hall is the second oldest city hall in the country, which was itself threatened,” Councilwoman Mary Pat Clark (D-14th District) told City Paper. “We should not have a motion to abolish the preservation movement from this city coming from this building.”

When the commission moved to a smaller room, the crowd of Kotarba’s supporters remained. Dr. Hicks gave a fiery speech in which she said. “She can wear the emperor’s new clothes all she wants. She’s still naked as a jaybird.”

When Kotarba entered the building after the meeting had begun, she was greeted by applause and the singing of “she’s a jolly good fellow.”

“It’s you guys, you inspire me every day,” she said with tears in her eyes.

After over an hour behind closed doors, the commission returned to the larger chambers and declared that “The commission is opting to take no action,” meaning that Kotarba will retain her position.

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