The Year In News
Published: December 8, 2010
It was the year of the “enthusiasm gap,” and not just as applied to the long-over honeymoon between President Obama and all but his most ardent admirers. The term also worked for most Americans’ engagement with the news of the day. Given the seemingly endless cavalcade of depressing news coming out of the Gulf of Mexico, Afghanistan, Wall Street, and Washington, I personally took to turning off the news during the afternoon commute. But the news matters, especially when it sucks. While many of the stories that most affected Baltimoreans this year (and will in years to come) were one shade or another of unpleasant, ignoring our troubles won’t make them go away. (Lee Gardner)
1 Some politicians really are corrupt.
Accusations of politicians behaving badly are common. It’s rare in Maryland to see criminal charges either pinned to or leveled at them, though, and 2010 was filled with such rarities. Former Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon (D) was sentenced for perjury and embezzlement, leading to City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (D) taking over her office. Meanwhile, state Sen. Ulysses Currie (D-Prince George’s County) was removed as chair of the Budget and Taxation Committee after federal conspiracy, bribery, extortion, mail fraud, and false statements charges were filed against him. And in a case that looks like the tip of a very large iceberg, outgoing Prince George’s County Executive Jack Johnson (D) and his wife Leslie (D), who had just won a County Council seat, were accused of witness tampering and destruction of evidence. (Van Smith)
2 Mother Nature hates us.
Snow and heat made headlines as they oppressed Baltimore in winter and summer, but the total picture of this record-shattering year didn’t emerge until the data had been crunched by the weather nerds. February brought 50 inches of snow, making it the snowiest month since record keeping began in 1871, while last winter as a whole had the most snow ever—77 inches. The summer’s average temperature of 79.3 degrees edged out the previous record, set in 1943, and the 59 days with 90 degree heat or higher beat the scorching summer of 1988, which previously held the record, by five days. (VS)
The back story behind much of the news this year in Baltimore (and most of the world) was the crippled economy. Facing the worst financial crisis in recent memory—a $121 million budget gap for fiscal year 2011—Baltimore City made millions of dollars in spending cuts and tax and fee hikes, ranging from increased parking fees to a controversial bottled beverage tax. But when the city passed broad changes to the fire and police pension plan, things really got hot. The public safety unions are suing in federal court. As for the state’s fiscal 2011 outlook—an estimated $1.7 billion general fund shortfall—it’s sunnier than most, but dark skies are ahead. With temporary fixes like the federal stimulus running out, the gap is likely to widen dramatically over the next few years. (Andrea Appleton)
4 Murder was down, but. . . .
In June, The Baltimore Sun reported that Baltimore for years had the highest percentage of rape cases classified as false or baseless of any city in the country. The city sprang into action, reviewing old rape reports, enforcing new police protocols, and opening a rape hotline. As a result, rape reports were up 48 percent as of Nov. 1, compared with the same time last year. Early on in the year, there was a lot of back-slapping about the low murder rate, but we’ve nearly caught up. In 2009 there were 238 murders. As of press time, there have been 207 this year. (AA)
5 Pat Jessamy loses, some guy wins.
Gregg Bernstein ran a masterful campaign for Baltimore State’s Attorney, highlighting his 20-plus-years-ago experience as a federal prosecutor and hammering home the fact that he is not incumbent Patricia Jessamy and, even more importantly, not Margaret Burns. Jessamy and Burns, her chief spokesperson, for years have given city police heartburn with their public criticism, sometimes playing fast and loose with the facts. Statistically, crime is down in Baltimore, but perceptually it remains a huge part of living here, instilling fear and distrust in the citizens of the city’s tonier neighborhoods even while invading-army police tactics instill fear and mistrust in those who live in the tougher neighborhoods. Bernstein pledges to “change the culture” of the prosecutor’s office. Time will tell. (Edward Ericson Jr.)
6 Rolling the dice.
Casino slot-machine gambling passed in a 2008 referendum that sought to create revenue to help the state’s budget picture and Maryland’s horse-racing industry, though so far the process of actually getting legal gambling going and the revenues flowing has been marked by one stall or setback after another. Meanwhile, the video-poker machine industry, which places “amusement only” devices in bars and restaurants, was increasingly exposed as an illegal gambling racket as the feds kept the gambling-related assets of two of its major players, Nick’s Amusements and Amusement Vending. The feds in Maryland struck a bigger blow against the worldwide online gaming industry by seeking to take the virtual pot wherever it appears in the United States. (VS)
Baltimore City is an important laboratory for drug treatment policy, nation-wide. This year treatment financing was expanded through creative use of the Medicaid program, and city drug treatment officials hailed it as “treatment on demand”—long the system’s goal. But on the ground, neither the city nor the state tracks individual treatment outcomes with any facility, and the new payment systems have made tracking even harder. One provider, Balitmore Behavioral Health, cultivated proficiency in billing and grew huge, while delivering results no better (and maybe worse) than smaller outfits. Long the subject of neighborhood complaints, BBH this year became fodder for stories in this newspaper and the Sun—and is under state investigation. (EE)
8 O’Malley re-elected, water wet.
For a while there, Bob Ehrlich was a man to be reckoned with, in the GOP and in Maryland. He may have lost the governor’s mansion to Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley in 2006, but speculations about another run bubbled statewide for all four years of O’Malley’s budget-hobbled term. Ehrlich squashed a hapless Tea Partier in the primary, rolled into the general with plenty of money and outside-the-beltways goodwill, and . . . was beaten handily by the incumbent. The moral of this story: Maryland is still deep blue, bumper sticker saturation notwithstanding. Maybe Ellen Sauerbrey will run again in 2014. (LG)
9 Selling ice to broke Eskimos.
Vacants to Value is a mayoral initiative to rehab 1,500 vacant buildings in a single year—about 10 times the number that a much-hyped city program called Selling City-Owned Property Efficiently (SCOPE) managed to accomplish in eight years, during the biggest housing bubble in the nation’s history. Incentives appear to be modest—a $1 million revolving fund for small developers, for example—and the local housing market continues to sag under foreclosures and bankruptcies. (EE)
10 Always low expectations.
Baltimore has traditionally been resistant to chain stores, and the news late last year that an 11-acre, $65 million development was coming to the former Anderson Automotive site in Remington provoked some grumbling. But in February, when the developer revealed that the project would include a Walmart, the grumble became a roar. Community organizations rose up, petitions were circulated, robocalls were launched. Opponents argued that a Walmart would crush neighborhood mom-and-pop stores and replace them with low-wage, go-nowhere jobs. Many residents simply wanted concessions: traffic management, the preservation of an old stone church. Certain City Council members pretended to listen, but when it came down to the decisive rezoning vote, they handed the developer a big ol’ gift-wrapped yes (minus one cowardly abstention). (AA)