Baltimore voters will decide whether to create an independent watchdog office to uncover misconduct by city officials — one of several proposals on the ballot this fall that would alter how the municipal government works.
If a majority votes “Yes” on Question F, the inspector general’s office would come out from under the mayor’s office. Supporters of the measure say that would guarantee it can root out abuses even at the highest levels of city government.
Inspector General Isabel Mercedes Cumming said she’s been working to rebuild the office since she took over at the beginning of the year. It had been without leadership since late 2016.
Mayor Catherine Pugh and the city solicitor have left her alone to pursues cases, Cumming said. Nonetheless, she urged voters to back independence.
“Things change on a dime, so we need to have and the citizens of Baltimore need to have the protection that this office will not become a political puppet,” she said.
Cumming’s team has completed several high-profile cases, including a pair of investigations into misconduct at the top of the city pension agencies. A number of people have been removed from office as a result of her work, Cumming said.
If voters approve, the city’s charter would be amended to create the independent office and an advisory board that would help craft its budget. The inspector general would gain the power to issue subpoenas without needing the approval of the city solicitor.
The City Council and Pugh approved putting the measure on the ballot.
Councilman Ryan Dorsey, who sponsored the charter amendment, said it had been in the works since before Cumming was appointed, but her successes have shown “why we do want a strong IG and that we should want to make it permanent and stronger.”
The general election ballot has nine bond issue and charter amendment questions, lettered “A” through “I.” Citizens usually vote in favor of such questions.
Question I asks voters to back the creation of an equity fund, a special pot of money that could be used to overcome racial and other kinds of discrimination. If voters approve, it would be up to the mayor and City Council to put money in the fund.
City officials have begun examining whether public money is being spent in ways that reduce inequalities or exacerbate them. A study by the city planning department found that predominantly white neighborhoods and richer areas benefited more from city construction and infrastructure spending than heavily black areas or poor neighborhoods.
Policies designed with equity in mind aim to do the opposite, pushing additional resources to previously neglected areas.
Councilman Brandon Scott, who developed the proposal, said Baltimore suffers “extreme levels of inequity.”
The fund could be used to pay for better transportation links or to promote home ownership, Scott said.
“We have to spend dollars on things that work towards eliminating those historical inequities we have in the city,” he said.
Question E is a proposal to amend the city charter to make Baltimore the first big city to bar officials from privatizing its drinking water and sewer systems. Supporters of the ballot measure argue that if the city turned the systems over to a corporation, the private company could increase property owners’ water bills. Those who oppose the ballot proposal say a private company could manage the systems more efficiently.
Question G proposes changes to how the city appoints the head of the department of legislative reference, the city’s in-house law library. The proposal is all that remains of the work of a charter review commission Pugh set up; the City Council declined to consider its other ideas.
Question H is a proposal to create a fund to create public campaign financing for local candidates. Supporters say the fund would give candidates a way to succeed without relying on financial backing from businesses or the wealthy. If the measure is approved, a commission would study how the fund would work and how to pay for it. The fund would be available to candidates starting in 2024.
Questions A through D ask voters to approve or reject $160 million in borrowing to fund construction and infrastructure projects.