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CHAP Executive Director Kotarba keeps her job

After nearly two hours in a closed session Monday, members of the Commission for Historical & Architectural Preservation voted down an attempt by the city planning director to fire the group’s director in the wake of several recent clashes over historic preservation in Baltimore.

Kathleen G. Kotarba has been executive director of CHAP since 1981.

CHAP Executive Director Kathleen G. Kotarba will remain in her job — for now.

“No action was taken by the CHAP board, and that is the full extent of what I can say,” said Thomas J. Stosur, director of planning for Baltimore, who was seeking Kotarba’s ouster.

The meeting at City Hall had high drama as a group of about 40 preservationists flooded a meeting room near the City Council chambers in support of Kotarba. After the CHAP panel gathered to vote to close the meeting because it would be discussing personnel issues, many, including City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, rallied to Kotarba’s defense.

When Kotarba showed up to address the CHAP panel, she was greeted with applause and a rousing rendition of “For She’s a Jolly Good Fellow” from the supporters as she wept in gratitude.

“They want someone who can approve what the mayor wants them to do,” said Helena Hicks, a former CHAP member whose term was not renewed by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake this past spring. “I know that she said … in January 2011 that if we didn’t agree with her on the items that came before us, she would get rid of the commissioners. There were four of us who were not going to bend to her [way].

“Most of the developers, they don’t live in the city. Many come in here and rape the city and then go home.”

Hicks’ comments were related to recent controversies involving CHAP.

One, between the city’s historic preservationists and a planned $150 million Superblock development on the city’s Westside over preserving a former Read’s Drugs store where Morgan State University students staged a civil rights sit-in protest in 1955, led to delays in the planning approval phase of the mega project, which persist today.

More recently, CHAP commissioners delayed a vote on a quest to demolish the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre downtown to make way for a $150 million retail and residential redevelopment by Owings Mills developer Howard Brown. The theater is on the city’s Special List, which grants it protection from the wrecking ball for six months while preservationists seek ways to avoid demolition. A Sept. 11 hearing is planned by CHAP to vote on removing the theater from the list.

The changes are part of a new push by Rawlings-Blake to streamline planning and development issues in the city.

But Clarke said she was uncertain what that direction is, particularly in light of the recent departure of M.J. “Jay” Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., the city’s quasi-public development arm. Brodie announced in February he would leave his post after 16 years and is now gone. An interim BDC president is in charge.

Rawlings-Blake has said she wants the city to explore a new direction in its relationship with developers and economic development projects, but has not unveiled specific plans. That new direction includes changes at the BDC and CHAP, city planning officials have said.

“I have no idea what new direction the commission is being asked to move in,” Clarke said. “But the mission of CHAP is to balance development with preservation, so we maintain the fabric of our history.”

Kotarba began her career at City Hall working for former Mayor William Donald Schaefer. She has worked for CHAP since 1979 and has been executive director since 1981.

“I’m hanging in there,” she said of the attempt by Stosur to remove her.

Stosur addressed the CHAP board first, and he and Kotarba then left the closed meeting room and sat at opposite ends of the area outside. After deliberations, the CHAP board reconvened in public and voted not to take any action on Kotarba’s removal.