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Top Ten

The Year In News

Political corruption, Occupy Baltimore, Baltimore Grand Prix, Police corruption, Voter turnout, and more.

Photo: Edward Ericson Jr., License: N/A

Edward Ericson Jr.


The death of William Donald Schaefer on April 18 did not make City Paper’s annual list of the top 10 news events of 2011. It was certainly newsworthy, at least by certain measures: The number of screen pixels, radio airwaves, and gallons of ink devoted to the former Baltimore mayor, Maryland governor, and state comptroller’s life, passing, and legacy put it up there with many of the top items on our tally. And indeed, we here at Baltimore’s Most Contrarian Alternative Weekly devoted a sizeable amount of pixels and ink to Schaefer, including Edward Ericson Jr.’s feature on Willie Don’s true legacy (“Saint or Sinner?” May 11). But what we hope can be the real news going forward from Schaefer’s death is that Baltimore can be what it wants to be. Yes, many of Schaefer’s policies (e.g., developing our way out of our troubles) still shape our city today and will for many years to come, but we hope now that he’s gone on to that big Ocean City in the sky that those of us here, now, will feel less beholden to his spirit and his influence and truly start to think about what sort of city we want of Baltimore. Not that politics-as-usual are no longer a factor (this is Maryland, after all), but that somehow we can take this as a new day, build on what’s positive (our dropping murder rate), face our most serious problems (rising homelessness, lingering lead problems, our faltering infrastructure), and consider how to do both in new ways. So think of the following 10 items not only as a recap, but as inspiration. Let’s get to it. (Lee Gardner)

1 Political corruption The seeds of 2011’s sagas of political corruption in Maryland were sown last year—or even earlier—but they continue to bloom, providing guideposts as to what is and is not acceptable political conduct in the Free State. A Baltimore City jury decided that Paul Schurick, former Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s campaign manager, committed crimes when he conspired with consultant Julius Henson (whose trial starts early next year) to suppress votes in the 2010 gubernatorial election by sending more than 112,000 “robo-calls” urging predominantly urban, African-American voters to “relax” and not vote on Election Day. Also not permitted are pay-to-play schemes involving developers, which former Prince George’s County Executive Jack Johnson admitted to when he pleaded guilty in federal court—and neither is obstructing justice, to which Johnson’s wife, former County Councilmember Leslie Johnson, also pleaded guilty. But a federal jury, in acquitting state Sen. Ulysses Currie (D-Prince George’s) of charges that he used his official position to benefit a supermarket chain whose payments to him remained undisclosed, apparently decided that Currie was more a knucklehead than a criminal. Seeing a jury buy Currie’s stupidity defense will likely give prosecutors pause before coming after others. (Van Smith)

2 Occupy Baltimore Occupy Baltimore got rolling a couple of weeks after Occupy Wall Street, and it did so with a bang. Around 200 people attended the initial meeting, and the tent city that subsequently arose in McKeldin Square lasted longer than those in many other cities. (Baltimore police evicted the occupiers in the early morning hours of Dec. 13, as this issue was going to press.) The Occupy movement has faced criticism that its goals are amorphous, but economic injustice is on everyone’s lips these days, and hundreds of thousands of people have moved their money from banks to credit unions, partly because of Occupy. And disorganized it is not. Occupy Baltimore featured a General Assembly complete with committees, a highly organized web site with a calendar of workshops and protests, a 24-hour “information zone,” daily hot meals, and a methodical, patient approach to the logistical problems direct democracy presents. Occupy’s tents may have been razed, but we doubt the movement is going anywhere soon. All else aside, it’s been a grand social experiment. (Andrea Appleton)

3 Baltimore Grand Prix The inaugural Baltimore Grand Prix was better than its most fervent boosters had hoped. The New York Times reported 75,000 fans for the main Indy race on Sunday; the total three-day paid attendance was said to be well north of 100,000. The races—held Labor Day weekend under perfect skies—were exciting and safe, with just a few crashes and no injuries. Then the illusion of competence crashed. The race’s founder, an enigmatic wheeler-dealer and sometimes crack addict named Steven Wehner, sued to recoup more than half a million dollars he says he was promised in a buyout. Other suits followed and, by November, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who had wholeheartedly supported the race and its corporate manager, Baltimore Racing Development, was openly sniping at now former BRD CEO Jay Davidson. BRD was insolvent, owing the state’s Stadium Authority several hundred thousand, the state about $24,000 in unpaid sales taxes, plus another $1.5 million to the city itself—not to mention hundreds of thousands in other debts claimed by private creditors in their court filings. The race brought only between a third and two-thirds of the expected economic impact. “We have always anticipated that we wouldn’t make a profit in the first year,” Davidson told the Times in August. Well, OK. But that’s not the same as saying, “We never expected to actually have to pay the guy who set up the grandstands.” (Edward Ericson Jr.)

4 Police corruption So far, 12 of 14 Baltimore City Police officers charged have pleaded guilty to an extortion conspiracy, uncovered by the FBI with help from the BPD, for getting paid to send business to a non-authorized towing company to haul vehicles from accident scenes and repair them. It may not be on par with cops lying to steal informant money or selling drugs stolen from dealers—which have happened in past Baltimore police scandals—but the scale of the towing conspiracy is staggering. Plea agreements in the case state that more than 50 officers were part of the scheme, which suggests a widespread look-the-other-way culture on the force. A much smaller matter, but more grave than the prosaic towing scandal, is the federal indictment of BPD officer Daniel Redd as part of a five-member heroin conspiracy. Among Redd’s alleged deeds is a heroin deal done in a police parking lot. This case, too, taps into concerns that the force tolerates bad actors; Redd, despite years of suspicion among his fellow officers, socialized with the department’s top internal-affairs investigator, who was rotated out of the job shortly after the indictment. (VS)

5 Voter turnout Just 73,962 of Baltimore’s registered voters bothered to cast a ballot in this September’s primary election, which set all but one incumbent city official (7th District City Councilmember Belinda Conaway) squarely on course for another term. Given Baltimore City’s 324,349 eligible voters, that’s a mere 22 percent turnout—barely one in five Baltimoreans exercised their franchise. The Sun reported that the turnout for the November general election, which all but ratified the Democratic primary winners, was 9.5 percent, half of the spectacularly feeble primary total. Yes, the primary usually decides most contests de facto in Democrat-dominated Baltimore, but if the candidates are so uninspiring and the voters so apathetic that this is what determines how the city runs for the next four years, we despair. We truly despair. (LG)

6 Homelessness rises In 2008, then Mayor Sheila Dixon pledged to “end homelessness” in the city within a decade with an ambitious program of shelters, “wraparound” social services for vulnerable people, and new public-housing vouchers. The city helped build a new 50,000-square-foot homeless persons’ “Employment Center” with Catholic Charities, and that was followed by an $8.1 million Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Housing and Resource Center a short walk down the Fallsway. But a funny thing happened on the way to ending homelessness. Census and other counts found that homelessness expanded dramatically, promised federal-housing vouchers never arrived, and the new shelter—which has experienced more than $1 million in construction cost overruns so far—has 100 fewer beds set aside for women than for men (and 100 fewer, overall, than the old shelter). City officials have scrambled to find accommodations for people while fielding complaints from homeless advocates alleging rude treatment in the shelters, threats, and worse. The City Council recently held a hearing on “Gender Discrimination at the City’s Homeless Shelter.” “I think we can estimate that at least one half of one percent of the city’s population is homeless,” Councilmember Robert Curran (D-3rd District) said at the meeting on Dec. 5. “That would be about 3,400 people on any given night.” The actual estimate, made in January, is 4,100. (EE)

7 Murders are down Baltimore may not feel less lethal than it was a few years ago, but the hardest crime data out there—deaths ruled homicides—is going south fast. As recently as 2007, City Paper’s Top 10 News writeups included the rising homicide numbers, noting that there had been 270 of them by press time. By comparison, this year’s to-date number is 189, and only 10 murders occurred in November—the lowest number for that month since 1970, according to the Sun. The explanations for this are by nature speculative—the city’s longstanding culture of violence is abating at last? The most violent folks are already locked up? The killers among us have gotten more discriminating about their targets? —but the result is heartening. Fewer violent deaths at the hands of others is a sign of a healthier civic psyche, and that is big, good news after two generations of senseless bloodshed. (VS)

8 Crappy sewers As this is being typed, the Baltimore City Department of Public Works is announcing a spill of 12,100 gallons of raw sewage—sorry, a “sanitary overflow”—into the Jones Falls waterway in the vicinity of the Streetcar Museum. A week earlier it was 110,000 gallons of sewage in the same spot. Just two weeks before that, 446,000 gallons of sewage wound up in Gwynns Falls, right down there by where you might ride your bike in Gwynns Falls Park and just up from where neighborhood kids swim under the Carrollton Viaduct. Note that 446,000 gallons is about half the water Gwynns sees in a typical day. A storm in late August led to 70 million gallons of sewage going into area waterways, with 17 million from just one Baltimore City facility into the Patapsco River. While sewage pours into our rivers and streams and, eventually, the bay—there are more of these instances in less landmark-y city locales—it’s gushing into residential basements, as old pipes clog or collapse; the DPW says it receives about 7,000 calls each year complaining about sewage in basements, and many affected residents say complaints are often poorly resolved, if at all. Currently the city’s in the midst of a $900 million EPA-mandated project to update its sewers citywide to prevent overflows, scheduled to be done by 2016. We’ll see if we have a bay left to save by then. (Michael Byrne)

9 Lead paint problems It has been 61 years since lead paint was prohibited in Baltimore interiors, and still kids are being poisoned by it. Lead poisoning reduces their IQs, makes them irritable, and is associated with crime and violence. It is also correlated with lawsuits, hundreds of which have been filed against the city’s housing agency. The city has lost its share of them, and judges have ordered the Housing Authority to pay plaintiffs more than $9 million. The city has refused to do so, citing the laws that govern the way it disburses the federal funds that make up most of its budget, though it has spent nearly $4 million defending itself against the suits. The stalemate, reported in April by the Sun’s Scott Calvert, continues today, despite state legislators who have urged a settlement. But the city agency also came under scrutiny for its own lead-mitigation practices, drawing EPA attention on a west side project that appears to have been done without following federally required lead-abatement practices. “I’m saying we should have had [the plastic enclosure] when we started,” a city worker named Gary acknowledged to City Paper last summer. “I live in the city too. I don’t want lead paint all over the city.” (EE)

10 We rule at science With government spending under scrutiny and NASA’s longtime organizational problems coming to public light, it was a rough year for the space agency and science research in general. But Maryland—and Baltimore—managed to achieve well-earned and high-profile successes. There’s the James Webb Space Telescope—aka Hubble 2.0—which is run out of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore and Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt and which eked out full funding in November after the House proposed cutting it to save money and teach NASA a much-needed lesson. There’s Adam Riess, a Johns Hopkins University astronomy and physics professor and STScI senior member who in October won a shared Nobel Prize for his part in the 1998 discovery of the universe’s accelerating rate of expansion. And there’s the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, which, among other accomplishments, in March saw its MESSENGER craft become the first to enter Mercury’s orbit and just weeks ago its New Horizons probe reach closer to Pluto than any craft in human history. Budget woes be damned—onward, Maryland. (Laura Dattaro)

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