Change would give mayor new pow­ers

Char­ter would loosen curbs on mak­ing deals; would go to vot­ers if coun­cil passes it

Baltimore Sun - - NEWS - By Ian Dun­can idun­can@balt­ twit­­can

A pro­posal to add 13 words to Bal­ti­more’s char­ter — the city’s con­sti­tu­tion — could give the mayor sig­nif­i­cant new power to en­ter into con­tracts and make new kinds of deals with pri­vate com­pa­nies.

Mayor Cather­ine E. Pugh’s of­fice said the change would give of­fi­cials the flex­i­bil­ity to strike deals that get the best value out of the city’s as­sets. But ad­vo­cacy groups ques­tioned the change, say­ing it could al­low the mayor to ex­er­cise broad author­ity to spend tax dol­lars with only lim­ited ac­count­abil­ity.

The pro­posed change is con­tained in a 92-page re­port is­sued this week by a com­mis­sion Pugh formed to re­view the char­ter. It up­dates a sec­tion of the doc­u­ment that deals with the way the city’s spend­ing board can award con­tracts.

The com­mis­sion has pro­posed adding a third op­tion, giv­ing the board the author­ity to “award the con­tract in any man­ner au­tho­rized by or­di­nance or by the board.” The change is ex­plained in a note in the com­mis­sion’s re­port.

“This broad­ens the potential for new and var­ied types of con­tracts into which the City can en­ter, such as pub­lic-pri­vate part­ner­ships,” the note reads.

A ma­jor­ity of the five-mem­ber spend­ing panel, known as the Board of Es­ti­mates, is con­trolled by the mayor. She sits on the board along with two of her ap­pointees, giv­ing her enough votes to pass any pro­posal it con­sid­ers.

The char­ter re­view com­mis­sion’s rec­om­men­da­tions were sub­mit­ted to the City Coun­cil on Mon­day as five sep­a­rate pieces of leg­is­la­tion. Should the coun­cil ap­prove the changes, they will go be­fore vot­ers in Novem­ber.

Da­mon Eff­in­g­ham, the direc­tor of the watch­dog group Com­mon Cause Mary­land, asked what would hap­pen if the board in­ter­preted the open-ended lan­guage to au­tho­rize award­ing a con­tract be­cause of­fi­cials liked the “cut of their jib.”

“The coun­cil should cer­tainly ask ques­tions about how the cur­rent char­ter slows or oth­er­wise im­pedes pub­lic-pri­vate part­ner­ships and why such broad lan­guage is nec­es­sary,” Eff­in­g­ham said.

Mary Grant, an ac­tivist at Food and Wa­ter Watch, said the change to the con­tract­ing lan­guage ap­pears “ex­plic­itly in­tended to fa­cil­i­tate pri­va­ti­za­tion.”

Grant’s or­ga­ni­za­tion is con­cerned that pri­vate com­pa­nies are seek­ing to pri­va­tize Bal­ti­more’s pub­licly owned wa­ter sys­tem.

Suez En­vi­ron­ment, a French com­pany, has pitched city of­fi­cials and com­mu­nity groups on se­cur­ing a long-term lease on the wa­ter sys­tem in re­cent months — the com­pany calls the idea a “pub­lic-pri­vate part­ner­ship.”

Matt Gar­bark, an aide to Pugh who over­saw the re­view com­mis­sion, said changing the way the wa­ter sys­tem works was not part of the dis­cus­sion around changing the char­ter lan­guage and that the mayor’s ad­min­is­tra­tion has no in­ten­tion of pri­va­tiz­ing city ser­vices or as­sets.

He called the city’s wa­ter sys­tem “a gem.”

The idea be­hind the change, he said, is to work more closely with pri­vate com­pa­nies. Gar­bark said of­fi­cials are in­ter­ested in ex­plor­ing how new kinds of part­ner­ships could help the city make bet­ter use of its un­der­ground util­ity con­duit sys­tem and broad­band in­fras­truc­ture and carry out in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy projects.

Gar­bark said state law would pre­vent the city from award­ing con­tracts in a way that doesn’t serve the pub­lic in­ter­est.

He said Bal­ti­more’s char­ter puts more re­stric­tions on govern­ment pro­cure­ment than those of other ju­ris­dic­tions.

“It kind of can be a lit­tle bind­ing,” Gar­bark said. “We want to give our­selves more flex­i­bil­ity.”

The com­mis­sion also pro­posed changing the pro­ce­dures for set­ting what size con­tract needs to be for­mally ad­ver­tised to the pub­lic (any­thing over $50,000) and ap­proved at an open meet­ing by the spend­ing board (any­thing over $25,000).

Cur­rently the City Coun­cil is sup­posed to set those lev­els, but the com­mis­sion sug­gested giv­ing the board that power and giv­ing the coun­cil the abil­ity to re­view its de­ci­sion.

Gar­bark said that change is de­signed to re­flect how the process has worked in prac­tice. The coun­cil hasn’t ex­er­cised its power and so the de­ci­sion has been left to the board it­self, which is al­lowed by the char­ter.

“We wanted to make the char­ter re­flect the way the process ac­tu­ally works,” Gar­bark said.

But Grant said she is con­cerned that new thresh­olds could lead to a less open con­tract­ing process.

“We want to have trans­parency,” she said.

Roger Hart­ley, the dean of the Uni­ver­sity of Bal­ti­more’s Col­lege of Pub­lic Af­fairs, was a mem­ber of the re­view com­mis­sion. He said the de­bate about con­tract­ing mir­rors a broader is­sue run­ning through the group’s work about find­ing a balance be­tween em­pow­er­ing ex­perts in­side city govern­ment and be­ing ac­count­able to the pub­lic.

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