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Proposed change to Baltimore's charter would give mayors new contracting authority

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. “There’s certainly a few varying interpretations of this that could be somewhat concerning.”

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.”

“It’s something we don’t ever want to give up because it’s so important,” Garbark said. “We’re kind of the envy of the world with our water system.”

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 the city’s 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.

Those questions are especially acute when it comes to how the Board of Estimates works. Its three elected members — the mayor, City Council president and comptroller — are better suited as citywide representatives to consider how projects benefit the entire city, he said. But that means the board can be less aware than the council of local issues with certain contracts.

Hartley, who said he was not involved in drafting the proposed changes to the contracting rules, said the public should remember that any changes will outlive current elected officials.

“When you’re changing a charter, you’re changing entire structures and institutions in government that might not work the way you think they will right now,” he said.

iduncan@baltsun.com

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