Standing before the Board of Estimates this morning, Jack Lattimore tried to make his case.
A member of a group of citizens objecting to the city’s $1.4 million franchise agreement with Baltimore Gas & Electric to operate a natural gas pipeline through Leakin Park, Lattimore said the board had violated the city charter by allowing the pipeline to be constructed before it had negotiated a franchise price.
By so doing, the city “could not do their due diligence and they could not negotiate with BGE to get the highest amount possible,” Lattimore said, which made the franchise price “look like a deal rather than a negotiation.”
As he began to make a subsequent point, he was cut off in mid-sentence by City Solicitor Andre M. Davis.
“Madam President, if I may, I think we are getting far afield from the question presented by the protest,” Davis began. He said Lattimore was “branching off into areas that are possibly reserved” for the group’s lawsuit against the city.
There was murmuring in the room and someone said, “Let him finish!”
“Any suggestion. . . that corporate citizens of this city or this state or this country receive special treatment from lawyers representing this city must be categorically rejected by this board,” Davis thundered.
“The suggestion that the lawyers in the City Law Department don’t fight with everything they’ve got on behalf of their client agencies is wrong. And, frankly, it is offensive.”
Lattimore, a board member of the Friends of Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park, calmly waited for Davis to conclude and then resumed his remarks.
Eventually, acting on a motion offered by Davis, the board – controlled by Acting Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young – went on to approve the $1.4 million agreement.
A Defensive Posture
Davis’ agitation underscored the heightened concern by City Hall officials about the appearance of impropriety.
“I understand we are in a difficult environment these days with the uncertainty around city government,” Davis said, an apparent reference to Mayor Catherine Pugh, who is on a leave of absence as Maryland and federal agencies pursue possible corruption charges against her.
Lattimore told the board it was “shameful” to accept such a low valuation for the removal of 12 acres of public land at the second largest urban wilderness park in the nation.
“The city is undervaluing one of its most significant resources to the detriment of the public and in favor of a hugely profitable corporation.”
The only way to cure the city charter violations and regain the public trust, Lattimore said, was for the board to retain an independent consultant and conduct a fair and objective valuation of the parkland removed from public use.
Comptroller Joan Pratt asked Lattimore who provided the Friends with the $14 million estimate of the worth of the land taken for the pipeline.
The Department of Recreation and Parks, he said.
Pratt asked if he had a copy of the estimate. “No, ma’am, I do not,” he answered.
Standing next in line was Reginald Moore, director of Recreation and Parks.
“Baltimore City Rec and Parks recommends the $1.4 million franchise agreement,” he told the board, adding “I will acknowledge Baltimore City Rec and Parks has never established the $14 million figure.”
Moore’s implication that he and his department always favored the $1.4 million figure was contradicted by testimony delivered last November to the City Council’s Housing and Urban Affairs Committee.
Under questioning from Jack Young, then City Council president, Victor K. Trevala, the city lawyer who negotiated the franchise fee, said Moore’s department first wanted much more than $1.4 million from BGE.
“The Rec Department was very vociferous about what [price] they would like to have gotten,” Trevala said. “We were supportive of that, but at the end of the day after negotiations, we ended up with what we had.”
After Young said, “I support this project, but we want $2.4 million now,” Trevala told him that he would be “happy to brief you privately” about what he called “certain issues” that arose during the negotiations.
Trevala refused to disclose those issues at the public hearing or later to The Brew.
Still Not Disclosed
In response, this website filed a Maryland Public Information Act request in February seeking all documents and correspondence related to the city’s negotiations with BGE over the pipeline franchise.
Ten weeks later, the law department and Rec and Parks have still not supplied the information – essentially the same information that Comptroller Pratt was requesting today from Lattimore and the Friends group.
Late this afternoon, a city lawyer said she is reviewing more than 100,000 pages of emails that could pertain to the PIA request and asked that The Brew’s request be limited to “what exactly you want to see so that I can try to find that for you.”
BGE was “Screaming and Crying”
Today the board called on Trevala to dispute the Friends’ claims.
He argued that BGE is paying much more for the new pipeline than it had paid for an old pipeline. Back in 1979, he said, the city charged BGE “the princely sum of $10,000” for the existing natural gas line through Leakin Park.
What’s more, the city is set to receive $2.5 million in compensation for 800 trees the utility’s contractors cut down to construct the pipeline, which is now nearly completed.
Together with the franchise fee, BGE is being charged 450 times more than what the company was charged in 1979, Trevala said.
“So the idea that this was a sweetheart deal with BGE is totally ridiculous. I assure you that BGE doesn’t think so because they were screaming and crying the entire way.”
While Lattimore complained that comparisons to 1979 “muddied the waters” over the current franchise question, the spending board expressed satisfaction with Trevala’s remarks.
“Victor, thank you for your detailed and transparent testimony,” said board president Sharon Green Middleton after his testimony.
Acting Mayor Young and the rest of the panel went on to approve BGE’s use of the pipeline for 25 years at a cost of $1.4 million – the equivalent of $56,000 a year.