New law would let ex-pot smokers hold "positions of trust"

Smoked pot once or twice? Maybe you won't be barred from a great career as a Baltimore City code enforcement officer much longer.

A City Council bill wending its way through the legislative process would lower the bar to prospective city code enforcement officers by allowing the city agency that employs them to conduct the background check-instead of the police department.

"So President Obama would be qualified," Nicholas Blendy, the legislative liaison to the Department of Housing and Community Development, told members of a City Council committee on Nov. 1. Under the existing rules, the President (and at least one previous U.S. President) would not qualify to hand out environmental citations in Baltimore because they have admitted to recreational drug use in the past.

Introduced on Oct. 22 by Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton (D-6th District) under the title "Code Enforcement Officers," the bill is fairly technical, with references throughout to the "Administrative Manual," "Position of Trust," and various city codes. At the center is the fact that environmental citations-more commonly known as "trash tickets" but encompassing an array of irritating and/or noxious transgressions against the public well-being-can fall under both civil and criminal codes. They can also be costly, with fines up to $1,000. Only honest, moral types need apply.

"Think of it as just updating this [law] so we can get moving in terms of keeping our city clean and green," Middleton said when she introduced the bill. "We seem to be having some trouble with the hiring process."

Currently, all housing code enforcement officers are special enforcement officers appointed by the Baltimore City police commissioner.

At a Nov. 1 council committee hearing, Eric Booker, assistant commissioner for code enforcement, explained that he often has to tell job trainees he thinks are promising that they cannot be hired because the police background check and interview flagged them as unsuitable.

"After five months (of training), I get word . . . they can't make it," Booker said. Initially, the trainees tell him they have no record but, taking seriously the training rhetoric about "honesty, integrity, yadda yadda," they tell the police interviewer the truth about past recreational chemical indiscretions-and that's all it takes to eliminate them from consideration.

Booker told the committee that, after he came on board in 2004, he learned about the special enforcement status but did not know if all his inspectors had it. "So I sent everybody back through" the background check "to make sure my records were straight," he said.

Not all of them made it.

"I've had some excellent inspectors who were caught in this net," Booker said at the hearing. He would have had to fire them under the law, but "fortunately we worked something out with the labor commission."

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