Weakened version of audits bill moves forward

A weakened version of the City Council's hotly debated audits bill won preliminary approval Monday night, meaning it could go before voters in November after a final council vote next month.

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young announced a special council session Aug. 13 to vote on the bill. The amended legislation would require 14 city agencies to be audited at least once every four years. The original bill, sponsored by City Councilman Carl Stokes, called for audits of all 55 agencies every two years.

A spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said she would need to review the legislation once it comes to her but said she was generally supportive of the movement to require the comptroller's office to conduct more audits.

"The mayor is hopeful that the council reconvenes in a special meeting to approve the measure in order to meet the deadline to get it before the voters in November," said mayoral spokesman Ryan O'Doherty. The council had planned to recess for the summer after Monday night.

Several council members lamented the fact that many city agencies haven't been audited in decades — or as 28-year-old freshman Councilman Brandon Scott put it, in his lifetime.

"We are a budget built on sand," said City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke.

Council members initially tied Monday in a vote, 6-6, to require audits every two years. An amended version of the bill advanced by a vote of 8-4. Stokes was among those voting no.

The council also rejected an amendment that would have required only performance audits of city agencies, not financial audits.

Council members who voted for the amended bill were heckled by audience members, one of whom loudly stated, "Sell out!" Another shouted, "Tell us what you're hiding!"

But those who supported the amended legislation called it a step in the right direction.

"We may not get the toughest bill through, but we will get a bill through," said City Councilman Robert Curran. "We will no longer have three decades of no audits. It may not be the best, but it's a start."

The Department of Audits, which has 37 auditor positions — 32 of which are filled — falls under Comptroller Joan M. Pratt's office. She has said conducting the increased audits would be possible if Rawlings-Blake provided the funding in her budget. The city has conducted between 10 and 20 audits each of the past three years.

The audits vote came after City Councilman Bill Henry introduced bills aimed at curbing the power of the mayor, reducing the council's size and instituting term limits. Henry's bills would reshape the City Council, leaving it with fewer members but more power.

"A 'strong mayor' system of government may be the appropriate one for Baltimore," Henry said, "but it is so ridiculously strong now, it makes it hard for the supposed check and balance between the executive branch and the legislative branch to function."

One of Henry's bills would reduce the number of council votes needed to override a mayoral veto of a council bill from three-fourths to two-thirds of the council. Another bill would allow the council to add funds to certain areas of the mayor's proposed budget, after cuts from other areas. O'Doherty issued a statement expressing concern about the proposals.

Last month, the council attempted to cut Rawlings-Blake's budget to add funding for recreation centers and fire companies, but could only ask the mayor to restore the funding, not order it. The effort failed after Rawlings-Blake lobbied several council members to vote against it.

A third bill of Henry's would impose term limits for all the city's elected officials: two terms for those elected citywide and three terms for council members. A final bill would reduce the number of council members from 15 to nine.

"My hope is to start a conversation about whether the status quo is serving us as well as it could," Henry said. "If we find that it's not, then we should be talking about some ways to do things differently."

A spokesman for Young said he supports three of Henry's proposals, disagreeing only with the plan to cut the number of council members. O'Doherty said Rawlings-Blake hasn't taken a stance yet.

Young also introduced a bill that would require the Fire Department to hold public hearings before it could close fire companies. Two were closed last week, and a third is scheduled to be closed in October.

Another Young bill seeks to tighten ethics laws by prohibiting city officials from accepting gifts from anyone who does business with the city. Current ethics rules prohibit agency officials from accepting gifts only from those who do business with their agency.



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