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Environmentby Fern Shen2:20 pmJan 19, 20240

DPW shuts down media coverage of sewer consent decree meeting

At a public meeting required under Baltimore’s agreement with state and federal regulators, The Brew is told it cannot interview staff. Others protest the meeting’s “undemocratic” format that prevents them from asking questions.

Above: DPW’s Tierra Brown blocks a Brew reporter from covering the public meeting on the Sanitary Sewer Consent Decree as Brown’s colleague, Jennifer Combs, looks on. (Fern Shen)

Baltimore Department of Public Works staffers abruptly shut down a reporter’s coverage of the annual meeting on Baltimore’s progress in ending sewage overflows and basement backups that’s mandated by state and federal regulators.

It happened last night after several members of the public also complained about being prevented from asking questions, decrying a meeting format one described as “undemocratic.”

Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper Alice Volpitta, of Blue Water Baltimore, was the first to push back in protest.

Her objections came just after Richard J. Luna, interim DPW director, and a colleague, concluded introductory remarks and an overview of DPW’s “Annual Sanitary Sewer Modified Consent Decree Public Information Session” at the Maryland Department of the Environment’s headquarters in Baltimore.

Several people raised their hands to ask questions. But the audience of about 30 people was told there would be no questioning.

Instead, the consultant running the meeting said people could go to “learning stations” set up in the room where “subject matter experts” were prepared to answer their questions.

At that point, Volpitta spoke out.

“The purpose of this meeting is so we can speak to the regulators, to the municipality and to each other about our concerns that we’ve had for years about this issue,” she said.

Sewage overflows and basement backups persist in Baltimore despite federal consent decree (1/18/24)

“People deserve to have their voices heard tonight at this meeting, and not just in a format where we’re speaking one-on-one,” Volpitta continued, turning to face the staffers at the learning stations in the back of the room.

“With all due respect, I know that you are all experts in your own field,” she said. “But this deserves a larger response than just having these small conversations that won’t be elevated to the public.”

Volpitta’s protest was rebuffed by Odessa L. Phillip, president of Assedo Consulting, a public relations company hired by DPW.

“That’s not how this room and this particular meeting is designed,” Phillip informed her.

“I understand where your concerns lay. . . but this forum wasn’t designed in that manner.”

Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper Alice Volpitta protests the format of the annual DPW meeting on the sanitary sewer consent decree. In the foreground, Blue Water Baltimore board member, Jack Boykin. (Fern Shen)

Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper Alice Volpitta protests the format of the annual DPW meeting on the sanitary sewer consent decree. In the foreground, Blue Water Baltimore board member Jack Boykin. (Fern Shen)

“They can’t speak to you”

Following this rigid format, members of the public approached the tables, where some lively interactions took place.

Identifying herself as a reporter, The Brew observed an exchange between Blue Water Baltimore board member Bill Howard and Timothy Wolfe, chief of DPW’s engineering and construction, about repairs that could curtail sewage releases in the city.

When the men finished their conversation and The Brew tried to ask Wolfe a question, two members of DPW’s Office of Communications approached.

“Is this for a news story?” asked public relations coordinator Jennifer Combs.

Told that it was, she said, “I just want to hear, to capture your questions.”

At that point, the second spokesperson, Tierra Brown, broke in, saying, “These gentlemen can’t speak on behalf of the agency to the media.”

“So is this an interview?” Brown continued. “Or are you just doing this as a concerned constituent?”

When The Brew repeated that the questions were for a news story, Brown said, “They can’t speak to you.”

DPW's Jennifer Combs and Timothy Wolfe listen as Tierra Brown, Combs' colleague, not shown, tells a Baltimore Brew reporter she cannot interview Wolfe. (Fern Shen)

DPW’s Jennifer Combs and Timothy Wolfe listen as Tierra Brown, Combs’ colleague (not shown) tells a Brew reporter she cannot interview Wolfe. (Fern Shen)

“Like screaming into the void”

Volpitta was not the only person to complain about a meeting format in which questions could not be asked and answered for the whole room to hear.

Jack Boyson said he approached Phillip to complain that the format left him with little confidence in the agency.

“I came here to be reassured. But I’m walking away not sure they know what they’re doing,” Boyson said, explaining that he wanted to know more about the consent decree, a product of federal pollution control litigation dating back to 2002.

“I want to know what’s remaining with the consent decree, what’s the progress, what are the challenges,” said Boyson, a newly minted member of the Blue Water Baltimore board.

Another person who came to the meeting eager to get answers, but frustrated by the format, was Shiv Sharma.

While running a company that provides cleaning services for basement sewage backups, “I’m seeing children living in these places,” he said.

“There’s no assistance for people to properly clean up their properties,” he told Volpitta.

“I know there’s these programs, but they don’t seem to work,” he said, adding that he didn’t know who in the room to ask about the issue.

Sharma thanked Volpitta after she described the sewage cleanup assistance programs that she and other advocates have been pressing DPW for years to expand.

“You were brave to speak up,” Sharma said. “You come to this thing every year?”

Volpitta said she came as often as she could, always protesting the format as “inadequate and undemocratic” and always being rebuffed.

“It’s the same thing every year – a group of people who are sitting at their tables, and, poof, our concerns vanish into a vacuum,” she said.

“It’s like screaming into the void.”

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