City finance officials were wrong to close a May 20 meeting at City Hall in order to discuss and vote on details of a $107 million request for taxpayer subsidies for a luxury development at Harbor Point, the Open Meetings Compliance Board found.
In an official opinion dated July 25, compliance board Chairwoman Elizabeth L. Nilson and board member Courtney J. McKeldin wrote that the Baltimore Board of Finance violated the state’s Open Meetings Act when it voted to close the 90-minute meeting to vote on proposed legislation on the tax increment financing, or TIF, package for Harbor Point Development Group LLC, the developer of Harbor Point.
“In the closed session, the finance board considered whether to grant its approval for the introduction of legislation to authorize the financing of a real estate development through the city’s TIF policy,” said the opinion, which was sent to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake by Assistant Attorney General Ann MacNeille, counsel to the compliance board.
The opinion noted that the compliance board reviewed “sealed” minutes taken during the closed session as part of its investigation.
“From the information provided to us, we find that the public was entitled to observe at least part of the finance board’s May 20 meeting and to be apprised, in advance of the finance board’s reasons for closing it,” Nilson and McKeldin wrote.
Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater and Fox 45 News producer Stephen Janis and reporter Melinda Roeder were assigned to cover the meeting as part of the ongoing story about the $1 billion Harbor Point development and multiple requests for tax incentives, including the TIF, that could total up to $125 million, legislation states.
At the time of the meeting, the TIF request had been made by the Baltimore Development Corp.’s board, in preparation for consideration by other city elected officials.
In a statement Monday, Rawlings-Blake’s spokesman Travis Tazelaar said the mayor was studying the 13-page advisory opinion.
“We … expect to fully comply with its expressed principles going forward,” the statement said.
Currently, the TIF request is pending before the Baltimore City Council’s Taxation, Finance and Economic Development Committee, which held a lengthy and controversial hearing on the request on July 17, with a continuation of that hearing scheduled for 5 p.m. Aug. 7 at City Hall.
Councilman Carl Stokes, who chairs the committee, has said his requests for a detailed list of Harbor Point investors have been ignored by developer Michael Beatty and the BDC.
Bakery mogul John S. Paterakis, owner of the H&S Bakery adjacent to the Harbor Point site, was a partner with Beatty when the project was launched, but Beatty has said Paterakis has withdrawn from the project. Beatty and Paterakis worked in a partnership to develop Harbor East, an area located next to Harbor Point.
On May 20, the reporters were told to leave after the finance board’s meeting was abruptly closed to the public based on a motion by city Finance Director Harry E. Black. Three other board members voted to close the meeting and Comptroller Joan Pratt abstained, the Sun reported.
Remaining in the room for the meeting and the vote were members of the finance board and representatives of the BDC and MuniCap Inc., the city’s financial advisors who compiled a financial analysis of the Harbor Point project.
The July 25 opinion said of the closed session: “The finance board’s response describes the topics discussed this way: Representatives of the BDC and MuniCap, public finance consultants, presented financial data and projections relating to the proposed project … [and] the financial feasibility study and preliminary financial projections discussed at the meeting contain sensitive financial data … .”
In the sealed minutes, though, the compliance board found that the discussion confirmed “conceptual matters relating to the financing of the project and also approved the introduction of the three bills needed to implement financing.”
While the finance board also claimed the meeting was exempt from the Open Meetings Act because it discussed “business relocation,” the compliance board’s opinion said the relocation in question — a new headquarters for Exelon Corp. — had already been extensively covered in the media, and no new details were found in the sealed draft minutes.
The sealed minutes also said the closed meeting contained a discussion of “infrastructure needs” and “project phases” of the massive project on the 27-acre site.
Janis and Roeder claimed in a letter to the compliance board that the meeting was closed without a written statement given to them by the finance board, as mandated by state Open Meetings Act. They also claimed that “the finance board’s discussions involved tax and land use policy, issues that should have been discussed in an open meeting, and that the meeting was closed to members of the press, but not others.”
Earlier in May, the city’s legal department declined a Maryland Public Information Act request filed by The Daily Record, The Sun and Fox 45 for detailed financial analysis records relating to the TIF request by Beatty’s Harbor Point Development Group LLC.
“The Baltimore Development Corp. and the Department of Finance are withholding documents responsive to your requests pursuant to the deliberative process privilege,” the May 10 letter from Assistant City Solicitor Mark J. Dimenna said.