In mid-November, an employee with the Baltimore City Recreation and Parks department asked a staffer in the mayor’s office how the agency could participate in the upcoming Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade. The mayor’s office forwarded the request to the Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts, the city’s arts council.

Despite having a contractual obligation to stage the parade each year, a staff member in the arts organization responded to the email with a smiley face emoji and a brief retort.

“Beats me. We don’t have plans for the MLK parade,” said Tonya Miller Hall, now a senior arts adviser in Mayor Brandon Scott’s office.

The emails, obtained in a batch of records requested by The Banner, shed more light on the lead-up to the chaotic chain of events in January that resulted in BOPA director Donna Drew Sawyer’s resignation and a last-minute dash to hold the parade.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Despite both the mayor’s office and the arts organization having knowledge of the parade’s cancelation as early as November, neither agency communicated that knowledge to the rest of city government or the public until January, the records show, and both entities went on to shift the blame onto the other.

In a statement Friday afternoon, the mayor’s office did not acknowledge questions about the chronology of communications leading up to Sawyer’s ouster and doubled down on its criticisms of BOPA leadership. In the past two years, the city’s arts council has suffered from low staff morale, flawed scheduling of its signature arts festival and “the decision not to prioritize the Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade,” Scott’s office said.

“These missteps and shortcomings revealed a lack of effective leadership at BOPA,” the statement continued. “However, the Mayor’s Office and BOPA have taken proactive steps to rectify these issues and find a positive way forward for the residents and communities we serve.”

Brian D. Lyles, president of the BOPA board of directors, did not immediately respond to request for comment.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Among those in the dark about MLK Day plans late last year was City Council President Nick Mosby, whose staff attempted to reach BOPA in mid-December about the parade.

“The purpose of my email is to inquire as to whether or not the MLK Parade will take place next month. I did not see it on BOPA’s website, but I promised our Community Affairs team that I would double-check,” Mosby spokeswoman Candance Greene wrote in an email with the subject line “2023 MLK Parade” to BOPA staffers in December. She described difficulty connecting with the organization, writing, for example, that two members of the staff had their email addresses listed incorrectly on the website.

“I also tried to call your office, but the phone system seems not to recognize any of the names I was trying to dial in and the receptionist option is a voice prompt that sends callers to a general voicemail box,” Greene wrote in an email. “Just making you aware of the issue.”

Mosby blasted the mayor’s office in an interview for turning Sawyer into a “scapegoat” after public backlash to a decision on the parade that “they already knew was cancelled.”

“For me, the buck stops with the mayor,” the council president said. Sawyer’s reputation and career were “trampled upon” in the wake of the parade cancellation, an “unconscionable” outcome, he said, given the timeline of what the mayor’s office knew.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Later in December, staff members from the Department of Public Works emailed the mayor’s office to inquire about Scott’s schedule over the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday, and if he had any “big events planned (e.g. MLK Parade).” Scott’s executive assistant wrote back that the office would keep the department abreast of his plans, but didn’t mention the parade’s cancelation.

This lack of communication with other officials in city government is part of a pattern for the Scott administration, both Mosby and Councilman Eric Costello said. In a statement, Costello expressed disappointment at the revelation that the city had known since mid-November that there were no plans in place to put on the MLK Day parade.

“This parade has become a cornerstone of civic pride for our communities and there should never be a question whether we will host it,” he said. “The lack of transparency and the failure to communicate is unfortunately an ongoing trend with this administration.”

In early January, BOPA spokeswoman Barbara Hauck sent an email to members of the mayor’s staff with BOPA’s planned response to the public detailing the parade’s cancelation and the day of service planned in its stead. Members of the mayor’s staff signed off.

The following day, Jan. 5, U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume, a Democrat from Baltimore, issued a rare critical statement about the arts organization, lambasting BOPA’s decision to cancel the parade as “disgraceful” and “going down the wrong path.” BOPA then sent a “clarifying statement” shifting blame on the mayor’s office for the cancelation, saying the organization could not make such decisions unilaterally.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

By Jan. 6, members of the mayor’s office were trading emails containing links to articles with even more criticism from The Baltimore Sun and Baltimore Fishbowl about the parade’s cancelation, and murmurings from the public about BOPA head Donna Drew Sawyer’s tenure at the helm.

Later that day, Scott demanded Sawyer’s resignation, threatening to pull city funding for the agency if she was not out within 10 days. Late on Jan. 8, the mayor tweeted that the parade would be held after all.

BOPA, a quasi-governmental organization, operates with a combination of city funding and private donations and hosts yearly citywide events, festivals and celebrations. Its slowdown of programming since the pandemic hit — including after Scott lifted the pandemic containment measures that prevented large gatherings — has been fiercely criticized by City Hall officials and the city’s arts community.

Artscape — the city’s largest festival, and regarded as the largest free U.S. arts festival — was canceled due to the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, and also did not run in 2022. The city gave BOPA $98,000 to operate the festival in 2020 and 2021, but Sawyer blamed organizational challenges on the pandemic, and could not explain to the committee’s satisfaction how that money was spent.

The council’s Ways and Means Committee approved a $196,000 cut from BOPA’s budget in June, promising to restore the money through the city’s supplemental fund, should the organization meet their requests. The money has not yet been restored, according to Costello, the committee’s chair.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

In addition to staging and producing citywide events — such as Light City and the Baltimore Book Festival, which also have not run since the pandemic — the office administers grant awards to arts organizations and artists; manages facilities, including the historic Cloisters Castle, the Bromo Seltzer Arts Tower, and the School 33 Art Center; and runs the weekly Baltimore Farmers Market from April through December.

Like other city-adjacent organizations and agencies, BOPA ran into funding and attendance challenges with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, according to Baltimore budget documents. Annual attendance across events hit a high of 1.5 million people in 2018 before dropping to 78,000 in 2020, when most public events were suspended, records show. In 2021, only 108,855 showed up to events despite BOPA’s target of 1.8 million, according to the budget documents.

Meanwhile, despite having a target of hosting eight BOPA-sponsored events in 2021, the organization did not hold any, according to budget documents. Its target for 2023 is 44 BOPA-sponsored events.

Tax documents filed with the Internal Revenue Service also paint a portrait of decline for the arts organization during the initial year of the pandemic. For the fiscal year ending June 2020, the organization reported a 20% revenue loss as well as substantial reductions in contributions and grants, program service revenue, investment income, and other revenue, according to the online tax forms.

Grants, salaries and compensation and other expenses also dropped that year, according to the forms, while its total liabilities grew. Sawyer earned $128,642 in the 2019 budget year and $172,839 in total compensation in the 2020 budget year, records show.

Baltimore Banner reporter Emily Sullivan contributed to this article.

More From The Banner