Stronger Than Strong: In a Showdown Over Landfill Problems, Public Works Director Prevails Over Mayor’s Friend

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By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Dec. 6, 1995

The November dismissal of Ken Strong as the city’s top garbageman is a tale of alleged government mismanagement, mixed political loyalties, and the frailty of personal friendship in the upper reaches of power. This personnel move, carried out by Department of Public Works (DPW) director George Balog with the approval of Strong’s childhood friend, Mayor Kurt Schmoke, provides a telling glimpse into the netherworld of city politics.

Balog’s official explanation for removing Strong as head of the Bureau of Solid Waste (BSW) was that he needed someone with a more technical background and greater field-operations experience. Strong, who has been widely praised for his innovation and efficiency during his one and a half years as BSW head, believes instead that his demise has more to do with his recent questioning of DPW’s handling of problems at the Quarantine Road Sanitary Landfill. Strong also asserts that “Balog wanted to get rid of me long before” the landfill dispute, perhaps because the DPW director wanted “to protect himself from my finding out how he operates.”

Surrounding these conflicting interpretations of the event is a larger conflict about what happens in mayoral politics when personal loyalty is pitted against professional power. Strong and Schmoke have been friend since both joined the Lancers boys’ club as teenagers.

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Strong has coordinated volunteers for all of Schmoke’s campaigns and served in the state’s attorney’s office and on the Planning Commission before moving to BSW. Most recently, he mobilized BSW forces to clean the city during an election year, an accomplishment recognized by mayoral spokesperson Clinton Coleman in the days following Strong’s dismissal. “I would say that having a cleaner city certainly helps [the mayor with re-election]. And we are in fact a cleaner city,” Coleman said.

George Balog is the director of the city’s largest department, overseeing some 6,000 city workers and hundreds of millions of dollars in city contracts. As a member of the Board of Estimates, he has one of five votes in approving the way the city spends most of its money. His power and influence in city matters – and his ability to attract contributions to fund re-election campaigns – are vital cogs in Schmoke’s political machine. Thus, when Balog decided it was time to move Strong out of BSW, the mayor quickly conceded, despite the merits of Strong’s record and his concerns about the landfill. Strong, for his part, is considering a lawsuit charging that his firing violated the state’s whistleblower statute.

On November 16, prompted by a reporter’s questions about a possible link between Strong’s dismissal and alleged problems at the landfill, Balog convened a press briefing in his conference room. During the two and a half hours that followed, Balog made his case. On hand to aid in the effort were DPW staff attorney Deborah Skupien, several other department officials, DPW spokesperson Vanessa Pyatt, and a consultant expert in landfill design.

At issue is the landfill leachate pond, where contaminated water that has percolated through the 25-acre clay-lined landfill is collected before being pumped into tankers and shipped to Patapsco River Wastewater Treatment Plant.

The pond, which is lined with clay and asphalt, has been out of commission since July 1994, when a 13-ton front-end loader was used to help remove sediment that had built up on the pond bed since its construction in 1984. According to DPW memos, the weight of the loader cracked the pond and created a need for extensive repairs. In August 1995, repairs were finally completed by a contractor, L.F. Mahoney. Strong, BSW engineers, and state officials have since expressed concerns about the repairs and DPW’s oversight of the contractor’s work.

The crux of Balog’s argument, though, is that Strong, far from having legitimate concerns about repairs to the landfill leachate pond, is himself to blame for the problems there. In Balog’s eyes, Strong, by virtue of being BSW head at the time, is not only responsible for the 1994 cracking of the pond bed but also for failing to bring the pond back into service immediately after the August 1995 repairs. Balog says that failure will cost the city $41,000. Mahoney’s bid for repairing the pond was $23,030.

In Strong’s opinion, Mahoney “treated our leachate pond like a pothole”; he believes payment to the contractor should be withheld until the repairs are done properly. In addition, Strong and others are concerned about unrepaired damage to the flume, through which leachate empties into the pond. The flume has been plugged for more than a year as the pond has awaited repairs, but warm, odorous liquid has been leaking from cracks and holes surrounding it.

As for Balog’s steadfast contention that the contractor’s work was good, Strong says, “I don’t believe he’s interested in the truth of what’s happening [at the leachate pond]. I believe he’s interested in protecting himself and his staff and his contractors” from being held responsible for the pond’s problems.

“It doesn’t seem to me that he is working assertively to solve the problem,” Strong continues. “He is working very aggressively to assign blame.”

In late October, Strong brought his concerns about the pond to Edward Dexter, chief of field operations for the Maryland Department of the Environment’s sold-waste program. On November 7, Dexter submitted a formal letter to DPW requesting detailed information to document that the repairs were adequate. As of December 5, he was still awaiting a response.

Early in the morning on Sunday, November 18, after word of the problems at the leachate pond had started to spread throughout city government, City Council members Martin O’Malley (D-3rd District) and John Cain (D-1st District) led a fact-finding mission to the landfill. Joining the legislators were two environmental activists, Terry Harris of the Sierra Club and Dan Jerrems of the Baltimore Recycling Coaltion and the Baltimore Parks Coalition. The legislators inspected the pond, concentrating on the damage around the flume, and declared their intent to scrutinize the matter, further, possibly through a formal council investigation.

Schmoke’s position on the issue of the leachate pond has evolved somewhat. On November 19, he said, “I accept Mr. Balog’s explanation, pointing out that “I’ve seen memoranda back and forth about it and I think Mr. Balog has adequately described the problem and is dealing with it.” Ten days later, he reserved judgment: “Without having firsthand experience or being an expert on environmental matters, for me to reach a conclusion based on the memoranda themselves is certainly difficult, so I have asked the law department to look into the matter and provide me with their analysis of it.” Leslie Winner, a contracts specialist in the city solicitor’s office, has been assigned the case.

Balog maintains that he did not remove Strong as BSW head as a result of his adamant stance and crusade of memos about the pond repairs. Rather, Balog credits Schmoke with the inspiration for moving Strong out of the position.

“I met with the mayor and the mayor, in this term, he wants to emphasize doing things,” Balog says. “He said, ‘We’ve been doing planning and all, and I want all the emphasis to be put on doing things.’ So I have Ken Strong at solid waste. His background is in English and he’s like an environmentalist. He’s been involved in communities and stuff like that. … And I look around my department, I got a guy named Leonard Addison. He’s been with the department 25 years. A civil engineer, terrific field man … so that’s when I said to the mayor, ‘Look, I got somebody that I think’s really good and I think we should give him a chance of being a focal point with the hottest bureau and see what he can do.’ And that’s how it happened.”

Schmoke says he doesn’t recall such a conversation with Balog, but says he approves of Strong’s dismissal. On November 20, Strong met with Schmoke to discuss the situation, which both say has been a strain on their 31-year friendship.

“It has been a difficult experience,” Schmoke says. “It’s somewhat awkward anyway to be in an employer-employee relationship with somebody that you’ve been friends with for quite a long time.” The mayor adds that the episode hasn’t “irreparably damaged” his friendship with Strong “becauswe we’ve had some very frank conversations about this situation, and he understands that I have supported a lot of the work that he has done.”

Schmoke, who points out that Strong declined an offer of a civil-service position at DPW, has agreed to be a reference for Strong as he looks for new employment. “I identify [Strong] as a person with a real concern for community,” Schmoke remarks. “He’s a person that things that what happens in neighborhoods in this city is very important, that we ought to pay attention to people’s concerns neighborhood by neighborhood. He looks at both the big picture and the small blocks and has a great deal of concern about both.”

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Schmoke’s high regard for Strong, along with Strong’s publicly recognized record of service for the mayor, has led many observers to wonder why the mayor would so easily defer to Balog in moving Strong out of city government. O’Malley, for one, sees the situation as “one big power struggle.” Cain sees it as “city politics in microcosm, a metaphor of the way things really are.” Both believe Strong’s dismissal got the nod from the mayor because Balog has a significant edge over Strong in terms of raw power in city government.

Although Strong mobilizes get-out-the-vote forces for Schmoke – a valuable contribution to the reelection process – his role was not powerful enough to help him prevail in a showdown with Balog, a critical rainmaker during the campaign season. O’Malley suggests further that Strong, whose support among community leaders is well known, presented a direct threat to Balog’s authority. “Maybe Ken was the heir apparent, moving up to be DPW director,” the council member contends.

There are no indication that Strong was in line to replace Balog as DPW director. Balog says he has never felt threatened by Strong’s special relationship with the mayor and long history of community involvement.

Records of campaign contributions show that DPW contractors and empoyees gave large amounts to the Schmoke reelection drive. Thirteen DPW contractors who were mentioned by Balog in interviews about the leachate pond or who made bids to repair the pond collectively have given $42,965 to the Schmoke campaign committee since July 1994. (According to the integrated financial report of the city, these 13 contractors got more than $16 million worth of business from the city in the first 11 months of the 1995 fiscal year.) A group of 24 DPW employees and five of their family members, identified in the campaign records by matching their names with the city telephone directory, has given $9,150 since August 1994. These amounts are just a small part of the total DPW-related fund-raising picture, which includes a large community of contractors and a potential giving pool of about 6,000 employees.

“I seriously doubt that these contractors contribute to incumbent mayors because of their political philosophy,” O’Malley contends. “They contribute because they receive contracts, and no person in city government has greater knowledge of that process than Mr. Balog.”

Asked about his role as a major impetus for political giving, Balog says, “I never asked anybody to give any money, if that is what you are asking. I’ll take a lie-detector test on that.”

Strong was extremely surprised by the large amount Schmoke raised from the 13 contractors related to the leachate pond. But he makes no specific allegations of Balog pressuring contractors and employees to give to the Schmoke campaign, noting, “It’s more by rumor and reputation that [Balog] brings money into the campaign.”

While Strong says he is dismayed by the role money plays in politics generally – “The outcomes of it are pretty well documented,” he says – he contends that the overarching theme of Balog’s leadership is not his role as a political fund-raiser, but “the ways in which he is working to maintain his own power rather than serving the interests of the city.” By way of illustration, Strong says he was “infuriated” when, during the inauguration of the Clean Sweep program (which targets specific areas of the city for regularly scheduled, intensive cleanups), Balog made a casual reference to a “Dirty Dozen” of the city most in need of the program. The Dirty Dozen idea was not a preplanned part of the press conference, so Strong says “we had to create that on the spot.” Strong, who had been heavily involved in planning Clean Sweep, concluded that Balog “was jealous of this program, so in the last minute he comes up with this oddball aspect, the Dirty Dozen, which was what the paper ended up writing about.”

Confirming reports from DPW staff who did not want to be quoted for this story, Strong says Balot’s ongoing reorganization of the department has many managers on edge, worried about their job security as successive waves of changes come down the chain of command. Balog states he’s been reorganizing the department for “several years,” while Schmoke says he’s satisfied that, in so doing, Balog’s building a better DPW.

But one manager says, “I don’t know why there’s all these changes being made. My hope is that it is to improve the department, but I’m not so sure that’s the case – not so sure at all.” Strong, who on December 3 attended a surprise birthday party held for him by many of his former DPW underlings, says he came away from the gathering feeling that “people seem to be under growing pressure back at the department,” in part because “every time you turn around there’s another reorganization.”

Strong recalls a moment early in his DPW career that to him defines the culture that Balog is breeding at the department. Balog denies the conversation ever took place, but Strong insists that it occurred during one of his first meetings with the director, in 1991. Strong had just made the jump from the state’s attorney’s office to DPW. “[Balog] said, ‘One of the problems with people like you who come over from the state’s attorney’s office is that you think in terms of right and wrong. We don’t do that here. We just get things done.’ To me,” Strong concludes, “that just explains a lot about how he operates the department.”

Strong is consulting with an attorney to assess his chances of proving in court that he was dismissed in retribution for his stance on the pond-repair problems; in the meantime, he vows to press on in publicizing his concerns about the landfill. At the December 6 Board of Estimates meeting, for example, he plans to protest the proposed approval of the $41,000 expenditure to complete the pond repairs. And he says he will cooperate fully with the proposed City Council review of the situation.

“I think this story provides some important lessons to be learned about how government operates and how it should operate,” Strong says. “I will support whatever will open it up to some deeper analysis.”

 

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