The push to sell a former public school building to a politically-wired community activist has triggered a war of words between two City Council members.
What 6th District Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton touts as a “phenomenal opportunity” for the Park Heights community has been denounced by the 5th District’s Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer as a “behind-closed-doors” deal.
The sale of the former Langston Hughes Elementary School is set to be voted on tonight by the City Council after being fast-tracked through the body’s hearing process in less than a month.
If approved, bill 20-0534 would pave the way for Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young to sell the sprawling school to an entity controlled by George E. Mitchell.
An avid supporter of Young’s unsuccessful mayoral bid, Mitchell is the CEO of an entity granted a “right of entry” to use the building as a community center in 2017.
After the “Healthy Holly” scandal erupted last year, The Brew reported that children’s books, paid for by Baltimore City Schools, were stored at Langston Hughes in an area set up by Mitchell as a shrine-like display honoring former Mayor Catherine Pugh.
UPDATE: The City Council tonight approved the private sale of the school building, with only Schleifer voting no. “With $4 billion worth of real estate, I don’t think the city should ever allow anything to be sold through private contracts,” he said.
In addition to city politicians, Mitchell has cultivated friendships with a host of state officials, including Gov. Larry Hogan, Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford and Comptroller Peter Franchot. In 2018, Mitchell lost a primary bid to become a state legislator from the 41st District.
Not Disclosed – Sales Price
There has been no public disclosure of how much Mitchell would pay for the property. The bill before the Council does not provide any sales price, and Middleton, chief sponsor of the bill to sell the property, says she does know what it might be.
At a June 4 hearing, Schleifer won a concession from a city lawyer that, if the words “private sale” were deleted from the bill, the school could be sold through a public RFP process.
“I do not think it is in the city’s best interests to have any building sold in private sale” – Councilman Yitzy Schleifer.
Schleifer said he believes the former school – a 41,000-square-foot building on 2.5 acres of land on Reisterstown Road – could fetch a good price if opened up to multiple potential buyers.
But he was ruled out of order by Middleton and silenced before he could offer any amendments.
“I will not be censored,” Schleifer fumed during the WebEx hearing, with Middleton exclaiming over his protests, “You are not being censored. You’re interrupting the chair of the committee!”
Councilman Eric Costello then called on other members of the Taxation, Finance and Economic Development Committee to vote the bill out of committee.
The five committee members – Costello, Middleton, Danielle McCray, Edward Reisinger and Robert Stokes – quickly approved the measure without any changes. The bill goes before the full Council tonight for approval.
Murky Corporate Structure
Behind the verbal fireworks at the hearing were unanswered questions about how Mitchell financially operates the center and whether he follows rules that prohibit political and electioneering activities on city-owned property.
The community center includes a large free food pantry, a children’s literacy program, adult education services, a small library, free WiFi, and drug, church-related and veterans programs.
From a large kitchen, it also sells meals (Mitchell formerly worked at Martin’s West) and charges for parties, banquets, dinners and fashion shows, often taking a high percentage of the liquor that reportedly flows freely.
On its website, Youth Educational Services (Y.E.S.) claims to be a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that operates the for-profit Langston Hughes Business Community & Resource Corporation (LHBCRC).
According to a online database, Y.E.S. was granted tax exempt status in 2016, but has yet to file a full 990 disclosure statement.
Y.E.S. describes itself in state assessment records as the “trade name” for LHBCRC. It lists an LLC in Baltimore County as its resident agent. The LLC, in turn, lists a house and a vacant lot as its principal office and the home of its resident agent.
Based on the corporate filings, Y.E.S., LHBCRC and a third entity, Harford Business Center LLC, all are linked to Mitchell.
Praise and Criticism
In his June 4 testimony, Mitchell said he has long wanted to buy the school building, but did not disclose the price he wished to pay for it.
He did, however, tell the panel that he was willing to pay the $259,000-a-year utility bills city has been paying on behalf of the center since he gained ROE (right of entry) in 2017.
Mitchell is “a phenomenal force in helping to maintain and move forward Park Heights” – Councilwoman Sharon Middleton.
Councilwoman Middleton, in whose district the building is located, lauded Mitchell as “a phenomenal force in helping to maintain and move forward Park Heights,” which is one of the city’s most economically depressed areas.
“Every Council [member] should wish for a George Mitchell in the types of things they do everyday from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.” She added that it is longstanding city practice to allow public property to be disposed of through a private or a public sale, as determined by the mayor.
“I do not think it is in the city’s best interests to have any building sold in private sale,” Schleifer said.
“Just because this is the way things have been done doesn’t mean that it is correct. Business conducted in Baltimore City has been problematic for years.”
Mitchell said during the hearing that when he first toured the vacant building in 2016, “there were rats as big as raccoons, mice and cockroaches. I almost decided to walk back out the door, but we decided instead to clean up the building and work for the community.”
Six weeks ago, on April 29, Mitchell got involved in a physical altercation with Willie J. Hanna II, another well-known figure in Park Heights. Both were charged with second-degree assault, and Mitchell was slapped with a peace order on May 8, according to Baltimore City District Court records.
A hearing on the peace order is scheduled for this Thursday at the Eastside District Court.
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