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Editorial: A welcome move on EBDI hearings

We commend the City Council for its unanimous vote Monday to convene hearings into the projected $1.8 billion project known as The New East Baltimore.

This is exactly the kind of oversight by our elected officials that has been lacking during the first decade of the nation’s largest urban development project. And it is exactly the kind of oversight needed now as project leaders seek to reshape the mammoth undertaking, which is lagging in biotech development, housing construction and job creation.

The project is spearheaded by East Baltimore Development Inc., a nonprofit created for this purpose. But even though Baltimore mayors have approved the appointment of EBDI’s CEO and more than $200 million in public funds have been invested so far in the project, EBDI operates with great autonomy and little transparency as a nonprofit.

EBDI is not audited by either the city or state governments. It has declined to release its internal audits to The Daily Record, saying it is not required by law to do so.

City Councilman Carl Stokes, who introduced the resolution calling for hearings along with nine other council members, also called on EBDI to release “any and all audits.”

Even though he is a nonvoting member of the EBDI board of directors, Stokes said he has never seen one of the nonprofit’s internal audits.

When first interviewed by The Daily Record months ago as part of the research for our recent series “Too Big to Fail? Betting a Billion on East Baltimore,” Mr. Stokes and other elected officials professed little or no knowledge of the project or its finances even though the city is heavily invested in it.

Since then, Mr. Stokes has created a task force to study the city’s use of Tax Increment Financing bonds to help finance this and other developments.

That was a good first step and now comes the call for hearings, which are long overdue. The first hearing is scheduled for March 30, and it will be televised.

Mr. Stokes expects there will be more than one hearing, because he wants to hear from all of the stakeholders, including current and former residents of Middle East, the African-American community that once occupied the 88 acres being redeveloped, as well as officials from the city Finance Department and from EBDI and two of its major partners in the project, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Johns Hopkins University.

This is an excellent opportunity for the City Council to assert its leadership, get the facts and help set the future course for this effort.

With more than half a billion dollars, including private investment, already spent on The New East Baltimore, it would be a disaster in human and financial terms if it did not succeed. We hope it does succeed, and we believe the best way for that to happen is through a fully transparent process that will involve all parties and allow for full public oversight.

And Baltimore citizens and taxpayers shouldn’t have to wait until March 30 for that to happen.