Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts CEO Donna Drew Sawyer speaks at the Parkway Theatre in October 2022. Photo by Ed Gunts.

Donna Drew Sawyer, CEO of Baltimore’s Office of Promotion and the Arts (BOPA), told her board last month that she expects to get $196,000 restored to BOPA’s budget for fiscal 2023, money that the City Council temporarily withheld in June.

Sawyer said she has asked Baltimore’s Board of Estimates to approve her request to have the money restored and expects the board to take up the issue during a meeting sometime this month. She said BOPA has done everything that council members asked BOPA to do in order to have the money put back in the agency’s budget.

“We continue to seek restoration of the $190,000 in city funding,” she said in a Zoom meeting with BOPA board members on Dec. 14. “We met the criteria that the council has asked us to do that, and we will be going before the Board of Estimates in January to have those funds restored, so we will keep you posted as to how that goes.”

The council’s Ways and Means Committee voted to withhold $196,000 after two contentious budget hearings in June, during which council members asked Sawyer to provide information about the agency and its activities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

BOPA is the official “events producer” for the City of Baltimore, which means it receives funds from the city’s operating budget to put on events such as Artscape; the Baltimore Book Festival; Light City; the Inner Harbor fireworks on the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve; and the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade. Today, BOPA announced that it has decided not to hold to the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade, a city tradition, and urged city residents to participate in a “day of service” instead.

In June, the council members specifically wanted to know what BOPA did with city funds allocated to help pay for Artscape in 2020 and 2021, years when BOPA didn’t produce an in-person Artscape festival. The Ways and Means Committee voted to withhold $196,000 because that is two times $98,000, the amount the city council allocated in fiscal 2021 and 2022 for Artscape and other in-person events that BOPA never held.

Council members also asked Sawyer to provide detailed information about other matters, including layoffs at BOPA during COVID; the makeup of its governing board; its policy for notifying neighborhoods when film crews come to their area, and the boundaries of Artscape 2023.

The council members said they would approve the bulk of BOPA’s budget request for fiscal 2023 – more than $2.5 million — but would withhold $196,000 until they were satisfied with Sawyer’s answers to their questions.

Sawyer was named BOPA’s CEO in July 2018, when Catherine Pugh was mayor. A Bolton Hill resident, she is listed as earning $159,867 for a 35-hour week, according to city records from more than a year ago. In 2022, she flew to Italy to attend the Venice Biennale.

During Sawyer’s tenure, BOPA cancelled Artscape, the book festival and Light City in 2020, 2021 and 2022, and Inner Harbor fireworks displays in 2020 and 2021. Last September, BOPA said on its website that it would hold Artscape 2023 during dates that would overlap with the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hoshanah – a decision that City Council member Odette Ramos called “a huge error,” and the dates were later changed.

In December, BOPA cancelled part of the New Year’s Eve celebrations due to inclement weather.

K. C. Kelleher, director of communications for Comptroller Bill Henry’s office, which holds the Board of Estimates meetings on Wednesdays, said she couldn’t verify Sawyer’s statement about an upcoming board meeting with an item involving BOPA. Kelleher said in an email message that she can’t comment on Board of Estimates agendas until they are made public, and the agendas for Jan. 11 and later haven’t been made public yet. The board did not meet on Jan. 4.

City Councilman Eric Costello, chair of the council’s Ways and Means Committee, said he is aware that Sawyer is attempting to have the $196,000 restored. He said it’s not just a matter of getting approval from the Board of Estimates because her request also needs council authorization.

“I look forward to reviewing their justification for restoration of the $196k, especially in light of their recent announcement that they are cancelling the MLK Jr. Day Parade,” Costello said in an email message Thursday. “In order for the funds to be restored, it would require passage of a Supplementary Appropriation by the Council, after approval by the {Board of Estimates],” he added.

Costello, who has questioned Sawyer repeatedly about Artscape, also said he thinks BOPA is breaching its contract with the city if it doesn’t hold the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade this year.

“BOPA is, yet again, in clear violation of their contractual obligation to the City of Baltimore,” he said. “I look forward to having a public discussion on this matter in excruciating detail in front of the City Council’s Ways & Means Committee.”

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Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.

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