Moving forward with a deal opponents contend was improperly struck, a City Council committee has approved a franchise giving Baltimore Gas & Electric the right to use a 2.2-mile-long natural gas pipeline across Leakin Park.
Critics of the franchise made an impassioned plea before the vote, citing the deal’s possible connection to Mayor Catherine Pugh’s unreported children’s book sales to entities that do business with the city and state.
“A board member of Exelon [BGE’s parent company] purchased a cache of Healthy Holly books,” said Sarah Lord, former president of the Baltimore City Forest Conservancy Board, at the hearing on Tuesday.
“And why is that?” she asked.
The opponents reiterated their contention that the project, which has claimed nearly 800 trees across a 50-foot swath through the park, was being grossly undervalued by the agreement proposed by the Pugh Administration.
The Department of Recreation and Parks originally valued the franchise agreement at $14 million, but the Pugh administration settled for one-tenth of that amount – $1.4 million, The Brew has reported.
“I find it appalling to hear that city government engages in transactions of this magnitude without independent analysis,” said Andy Hinz, one of about a dozen people in the audience for the bill.
BGE recently agreed to increase the franchise fee to $2 million. But with that amount still about one seventh what the Rec and Parks originally proposed, critics of the deal remain dissatisfied and have sued the city.
$32,000 to Pugh’s Campaign
Brew reporting has documented the close relationship between Pugh and BGE and its corporate parent, Exelon.
BGE and its chief executive, Calvin G. Butler Jr., for example, were notable backers of her run for mayor.
More than $32,000 in contributions flowed from executives at BGE, Constellation and Exelon into Pugh’s campaign committee during and after the 2016 election.
• City Council to push ahead with BGE pipeline deal in Leakin Park (4/16/19)
This included $18,500 from 30 executives before the April 2016 Democratic Party primary where Pugh narrowly defeated Sheila Dixon.
In addition, a member of the Exelon board, John W. Rogers Jr., has been identified as paying $3,600 for 400 “Healthy Holly” books – or $9 per copy – plus $80 in shipping.
The purchase was made through Ariel Investments, a company based in Chicago that Rogers founded and serves as CEO.
In 2013, Ariel sponsored a black corporate directors conference in California.
Inviting Pugh to speak at the conference, the company handed out Healthy Holly books to participants.
The books were purchased through Baltimore’s Associated Black Charities.
Burnett: “I love the park”
Before voting in favor of the bill, Councilman Kristerfer Burnett, whose West Baltimore district includes Leakin Park, said, “I love the park” and said he hoped his “yes” vote would not cause “any irreparable damage to the relationship with the park advocates.”
Along with Burnett, members of the Housing and Urban Affairs Committee voting “yes” on Council Bill 18-0298 were Chairman John Bullock and members Zeke Cohen, Bill Henry and Shannon Sneed.
Two other committee members, Ryan Dorsey and Isaac ” Yitzy” Schleifer, were not present.
Asked for his reaction afterwards, a leader of the opposition sighed, saying the outcome was not a surprise, but was still “disappointing.”
“I thought we would at least get a few ‘no’ votes. But not a one,” said Jack Lattimore of the Friends of Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park.
The franchise bill is expected to win final passage when it moves to the full Council for a vote this Monday.
“I guess the thing now is to just focus on the lawsuit,” Lattimore said, referring to the complaint he and two other group members filed in Baltimore Circuit Court earlier this month.
“This is not a rich city. This is money that could very much be used in other parks.”
Citing stark differences in estimates of the value of the parkland property, the suit asks for an independent appraisal of the nearly 20 acres permanently altered by BGE’s pipeline work.
“This is not a rich city,” Lord said in her remarks to committee. “This is money that could very much be used in other parks.”
The lawsuit contends that the franchise agreement violates the city charter because it was never approved by the Board of Estimates.
“This is absolutely something the City Council should never do,” said Michael McCann, the group’s attorney. “It sets a terrible precedent.”
A representative of the city law department, asked to comment by Bullock, said, “We are confident this bill is being handled like every other franchise.”
BGE Talking Point
Addressing the room, Burnett pointed out that the agreement “was negotiated by the Rawlings-Blake and Pugh administrations, not the City Council.”
“Despite that,” he said, he was able to delay action on the measure and increase the franchise amount by $600,00 as well as obtain a commitment from BGE for the restoration of a Girl Scout facility at the park.
Citing the fact that the original pipeline was constructed in 1949, Burnett implied that the new franchise agreement was necessary for safety and environmental reasons.
“We have to acknowledge the need for BGE to replace, not expand, an existing pipeline,” the councilman said.
That was the same point that BGE spokeswoman Linda Foy made in an email sent to The Brew following the hearing.
“What may have been missing in a lot of the recent conversations is that BGE is replacing an existing pipeline that has been in the park for 70 years,” Foy pointed out.
“The replacement line will ensure the safe and reliable delivery of natural gas to 650,000 customers across central Maryland,” she wrote.