Baltimore's ethics director is in charge of advising elected officials and fielding constituent complaints about them. It's unclear, however, if anyone is overseeing him.
A seven-member oversight panel, the Board of Legislative Reference, is responsible for hiring and firing the ethics director, according to the city charter. But, according to current and former city officials, the board has not met in six years — and perhaps longer.
The current ethics director, Avery Aisenstark has come under fire for doing legal work on the side for developers who are challenging zoning decisions in Baltimore County. Those same developers have had significant business interests before city agencies. Aisenstark's office also has been criticized for failing to review ethics disclosure forms that city officials are required to file.
The watchdog group Common Cause has said Aisenstark's private legal work raises questions about his fitness to hold his $94,000-a-year city job. If someone made such a complaint about any other city official, the ethics board might look into it. In Aisenstark's case, the inquiry would instead fall to the Board of Legislative Reference, city officials say.
Christopher B. Summers, president of the Maryland Public Policy Institute, a nonpartisan policy research organization, questioned whether the law shouldn't require more frequent board meetings and reviews of the director's work.
"What's the point of having the board if there's no oversight?" Summers asked. "With a leadership vacuum, you have an entrenched culture of complacency and a mentality that some employees are untouchable."
According to the city's charter, Aisenstark — who was hired for his city position in the mid-1990s — reports to the Board of Legislative Reference, composed of the mayor, city solicitor, president of the Johns Hopkins University, deans of the University of Maryland and University of Baltimore schools of law, director of the Enoch Pratt Free Library and a member of the City Council.
"There is not currently a council member serving on that board," said Lester Davis, spokesman for Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young. "The Council President believes that the board should certainly meet more frequently than once a decade. He will soon meet with his colleagues on the council to determine the best member to appoint to the board."
Aides to some other board members did not respond to inquiries from The Baltimore Sun about the panel's status, except to say they were unfamiliar with it and would research the matter.
Roswell Encina, spokesman for the library, said Chief Executive Officer Carla Hayden was familiar with the board but unsure when it last met. He said she believed it met only when new mayoral administrations took office.
But others say they recall no such meetings since former Mayor Sheila Dixon and current Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake were sworn in.
"It has not met since I began my current job in January, 2007," said City Solicitor George Nilson in an email. "I am unfamiliar with history of its meetings before that date."
"I've always found it to be a bit odd," said City Councilman William Cole, who suggested the board should at least be required to meet annually to review Aisenstark's performance. "You're putting people on this board and they don't even know they're on it."
Councilman Robert Curran, who has served since 1995, said he has never even heard of the Board of Legislative Reference, and cannot recall any meetings of it during his tenure.
"If you ask 15 council members about the Board of Legislative Reference, 13 or 14 of them couldn't tell you what it is," he said. "There are a lot of things in the charter that need to be updated."
Aisenstark is director of Baltimore's department of legislative reference and its ethics board. He has acknowledged that as a private lawyer, he has done work on behalf of the Committee for Zoning Integrity, a group that is challenging some Baltimore County zoning decisions.
The group is funded by the Cordish Cos. and Howard Brown of David S. Brown Enterprises, as well as the owners of the Garrison Forest Plaza and Green Spring Station shopping centers, according to disclosure reports.
Cordish and Brown have both sought city approvals in connection with their business interests in recent years. Cordish, for instance, sought a $3 million rent abatement last year on the Power Plant Live development. Brown is seeking city approval to demolish the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre to build two residential towers, three stories of retail space and underground parking.
Aisenstark, who runs a law firm called Avery Aisenstark LLC, attended a court hearing in Towson Oct. 31 during business hours related to the zoning fight. He said he was doing legal work for Stuart Kaplow, the attorney for the committee. Aisenstark said he took leave from work at City Hall to attend the hearing.
Aisenstark did not respond to requests for comment for this article, and previously said he would not respond to media inquiries from The Baltimore Sun. He has defended his work on behalf of the developers, saying they do not have business with his city agency and his work does not represent a conflict of interest.
Aisenstark's city responsibilities include advising elected officials on ethical matters, such as whether they can accept gifts from developers. He also advises the city's five-member ethics board, made up of citizens who consider complaints about the behavior of city officials and employees.
The mayor's office has said it is not responsible for Aisenstark or his actions. That duty falls to the Board of Legislative Reference, spokesman Ryan O'Doherty said. The board's duties, according to the charter, are to hire a director or remove him for "incompetence or neglect of duties."
The chairwoman of the Board of Ethics, Linda "Lu" Pierson, has not responded to requests for comment on Aisenstark's legal work.
According to the charter, Aisenstark's duties also include collecting and maintaining the financial disclosure forms filed by city officials. In February, The Baltimore Sun reported that the forms are rarely checked, and a comprehensive review of the forms had not been done in years.
Members of the ethics board later arranged for a city intern to review the forms. The review found that more than half of the 1,900 forms were filled out incorrectly or not at all.
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