A request by City Councilman Jim Kraft has rankled the leadership of some community organizations, while others see it as a case of much ado about nothing.
Starting in mid-June, Kraft has sent messages to community organization presidents, asking for information about their groups, including their 12-month meeting schedule, the number of dues-paying members in their organizations, the bylaws of each organization, the dates of the next scheduled elections for officers, and the minutes from each organization’s last three meetings.
Kraft also requested information about all elected officers of each organization, including their names, their contact information, the positions they serve, how long they have served, their election dates, and the dates of the ends of their terms.
The query asks community organizations to indicate their “entity status”–including whether they are incorporated and the status of their incorporation, or whether they are registered as 501(c) tax-exempt organizations.
Lastly, the query asks if the organizations are planning on holding any major events from June through Labor Day, including on National Night Out.
At the July 7 Southeast District Police Community Relations Council meeting, Kraft took the floor to explain his reasoning for his request.
He began with a brief overview of his background in community organizing.
“I was trained by people who worked for Saul Alinsky in Chicago,” he said, adding that a few decades ago, he had been a community organizer for Baltimore’s Northeast Community Organization, as well as an active member of the Maryland Democratic Party, guiding the various Democratic clubs throughout the state for 25 years.
About a month ago, Kraft said, he represented Baltimore at the New Cities Summit, an international conference June 17-19 in Dallas with the stated objective of “re-imagining cities” at “the leading global event on the future of the urban world.”
It was a workshop entitled “The New Urban Citizen” that eventually inspired Kraft to seek information from the community organizations, he said.
Among other things, the workshop, Kraft said, discussed “how to communicate with constituents in this new era” of multiple stance-taking organizations, such as community organizations, improvement associations, homeowners associations and larger umbrella groups.
“Throw into the mix social media and emails, which has turned the whole system upside down,” said Kraft. “You have so many people who don’t want to come out of their homes and go to meetings.”
With that mix, according to Kraft, there are sometimes situations in which community associations take a stance on an issue that contradicts other indicators and correspondence he receives.
“Sometimes, six people show up [at an association meeting to vote on something], then I get 20 emails from people who didn’t show up at the meeting but feel differently than the six people, and then you have 100 people on Facebook,” he said. “How do we as elected officials deal with the new urban citizen?”
He said that part of the impetus for gathering information from community organizations was to steer people toward such organizations.
“At least we can pick up the bylaws and say, ‘These are the rules, you’ve got them,’” said Kraft.
Also, he added, “people come to us, and we can make it more transparent…These are the groups that are there; these are the times that they meet; these are the contacts.”
Another reason for gathering the information, Kraft indicated, is to gain the tools to verify that stances taken by community organizations are in fact representative of the community.
“If a vote is 4-1, and then we get 25 emails, verifiable, from residents, then we have to take into account all of that information, because if we don’t, then we’re not representing all our citizens,” he explained.
Kraft has several times stated that, in cases of development requiring a zoning change or a departure from previously understood specifications of the community, he doesn’t introduce the necessary legislation to make that change until it is clear that the community supports it.
“It doesn’t mean that we’re not going to take into account community associations,” Kraft continued. “It just means we’re going to keep all of this in consideration.”
The councilman said that he is only asking for community organizations’ information on a voluntary basis—they may refuse his request.
The Fell’s Prospect Community Association has decided to do just that.
“This is not a group that’s supposed to be monitored and run by government,” said Victor Corbin, president of the association.
Corbin added that he felt the inquiry was “intrusive.”
He said that much of Fell’s Prospect’s information—including meeting minutes, association officers, meeting and election dates, though not the bylaws—are posted on the association’s website, fellsprospect.org. He also said that he has sent the meeting schedule to Kraft’s office several times.
“I’ve spoken to the board,” said Corbin. “We’re not going to comply with any of his requests, and I’m not going to send out the meeting schedule yet again.”
Corbin added that, since community organizations are furnishing Kraft with information that could be used to gauge the extent to which those organizations’ votes represent their communities on given issues, then that transparency should be reciprocated. The councilman should share with those organizations the dissenting emails and correspondence that he receives, he said.
“Then I want to see every email he gets with regard to votes by associations,” Corbin said.
Joanne Masopust, president of the Fell’s Point Community Organization, said that she sent Kraft’s office a few pieces of information, such as a list of the board members and a meeting schedule, with a note stating, “This is the only relevant information I think you need.”
“I wasn’t happy with the request,” she said. “I think that’s questioning the legitimacy of a community organization…If you have a problem with an organization, you sit down with that president and you have a discussion.”
David Leibensperger, president of the Patterson Park Neighborhood Association, had a different perspective. He said that all of the information requested by Kraft is already posted on the PPNA website, pattersonparkneighbors.org.
“Frankly, I do not understand the objections at all,” he said. “Bylaws are standard operating procedure for these organizations. The idea that you should shield that from the public and therefore your members is preposterous.”
“I applaud Councilman Kraft for doing everything he can to further organize city residents,” Leibensperger added.
Brian Sweeney, president of the Highlandtown Community Association, saw the request for information as no big deal.
“I have no problem with that,” he said. “Why not, right?”
“As far as I’m concerned, there’s no reason not to be an open book and share it, because, quite frankly, if Kraft’s office helps disseminate information, it helps.”
At Community Relations Council meeting, Kraft said that community organizations were by and large amenable to his requests, and only two were refusing them; Corbin said that “there’s a lot more pushback than he let on.”
by Erik Zygmont