What you need to know about the MLK Day parade controversy

For nearly a week, there’s been growing tension between the Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts and Mayor Brandon Scott’s office following the cancelation of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade for the third year in a row.

To help sort out the controversy surrounding BOPA, here are the things you need to know about the story.

What led to the MLK Jr. Day Parade cancelation?

Last Thursday, BOPA announced the cancelation of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade for the third year in a row. The parade was canceled in 2021 and 2022 because of COVID-19 restrictions, but this year the organization said it made a “conscious decision” to nix the parade and instead hold a day of service.

A spokesperson for Scott said the decision was made jointly by the mayor’s office and BOPA.

After criticism from city and state leaders, BOPA issued a “clarifying statement” Friday, shifting blame to the mayor’s office. That same night, Scott sent a letter to BOPA’s board demanding CEO Donna Drew Sawyer resign. (More on this later.)

Scott tweeted Sunday that the parade would be held, but with an anti-violence theme.

During an appearance on “Midday with Tom Hall” on WYPR, Scott said, “Quite frankly, my office is going to put on the MLK Day parade because BOPA is not doing it. We were told by BOPA that there was not a priority.”

He echoed remarks made by U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume that King’s legacy could be honored by participation in a National Day of Service as well as a parade.

How is the parade going to be carried out?

As of Tuesday, there are still no details, including the parade’s size and budget.

In his announcement, Scott said the procession would kick off at the “normal starting point” of the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Eutaw Street.

Baltimore Department of Public Works spokeswoman Jennifer Combs said the agency will clean the route before and after the parade.

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Deli Okafor, spokesperson for the Baltimore City Sheriff’s Office, said 20 deputies have been made available for security.

The mayor on Tuesday announced he had picked Tonya Miller Hall, BOPA’s lead marketing and program officer, to serve as new senior adviser for arts and cultural affairs, effective immediately.

Who is Donna Drew Sawyer?

Donna Drew Sawyer is the chief executive officer for the Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts. Sawyer was selected in July 2018 after a national search to replace William “Bill” Gilmore, who stepped down in December 2017 after more than 30 years of leadership.

After BOPA sent out its “clarifying statement,” Scott called for Sawyer’s resignation.

“It has become clear that BOPA is not meeting the expectations of the city and is causing significant disappointment and frustration for the residents of Baltimore,” Scott said in a letter to BOPA’s board shared with The Baltimore Banner.

He went on to say, “I will not fund BOPA in the upcoming fiscal year and I will not renew BOPA’s contract when the current one expires if Ms. Sawyer is not removed by January 15, 2023.″

On Tuesday night, Sawyer resigned.

Earlier in the day, Scott announced he had appointed a new senior advisor for arts and cultural affairs “to develop a fresh perspective and strategy for revitalizing our communities and harnessing Baltimore’s rich artistic talent and cultural assets to enhance the quality of life for all residents.”

He picked Tonya Miller Hall, the chief marketing and programs officer of BOPA.

“Cultural events that the mayor’s office has been putting on, like AFRAM, like Charm City Live, have gone without a hitch and have been extremely, wildly successful,” Scott told The Banner. “Having her [Miller Hall] in my office dedicated to working on these things that are important to the city allows us to make sure that we’re focusing on that in the right way.”

It’s not yet clear what effect Sawyer’s resignation has on this new position.

How much of BOPA’s funding comes from Baltimore City?

  • In fiscal year 2023, BOPA received $2.5 million in city general funds. We only have 990 tax forms through the period ending June 2020.
  • That year, the city awarded BOPA $3 million to cover events, art, culture and film, as well as the Bromo Seltzer Arts Tower.
  • It’s not clear how many people BOPA employs. In calendar year 2019, it reported a staff of 127, a 25% drop from the year before when it had a staff of 171, according to tax records.
  • In the fiscal year that ended in June 2020, Sawyer earned $172,839 in total compensation, tax records show. She earned $128,642 the year prior.
  • In the latest tax documents, BOPA reported $4.5 million in revenue; the year before, it reported more than $6 million.

What is BOPA responsible for?

The Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that serves as the arts council, events producer and film office for the City of Baltimore, according to its website.

BOPA produces several competitions, including the Municipal Art Society of Baltimore City Artist Travel Prize, the Baltimore Screenwriter’s Competition, the Janet & Walter Sondheim Art Prize, and the Maryland Region Scholastic Art and Writing Awards.

The organization also runs community arts programs, ranging from public murals to wayfinding art highlighting safe walking paths.

BOPA also oversees its Youth Arts Council and the Baltimore Public Art Commission, which is responsible for administering the city’s Percent for Public Art Program as well as the review and approval of all gifts of permanent public art to the city.

BOPA produces the following events:

  • Artscape
  • Baltimore City Book Festival
  • Baltimore Farmers Market
  • Baltimore’s New Year’s Eve Spectacular
  • Baltimore Open Studio Tour
  • Light City
  • Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade

BOPA also manages several landmarks and galleries:

  • Bromo Seltzer Arts Tower
  • The Cloisters
  • School 33 Art Center
  • Top of the World Observation Level

Who is on the BOPA Board?

  • Brian D. Lyles, president. Director of development at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company
  • Franklin N. McNeil Jr., secretary. Vice president, community consultant at PNC Bank
  • Jack Lewin, treasurer. Senior vice president at M&T Bank
  • Thomas Crawford, market president, OceanFirst Bank
  • Michael Davenport, manager of community affairs at BGE
  • Sandra Gibson, executive director of the Maryland Film Festival
  • Anana Kambon, principal at Kambon Executive Professional Strategies
  • Paula Rome
  • Laurie Rush, owner of On-Track Solutions
  • Michael Shecter, owner of Guppy Management Services

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