Baltimore voters on Tuesday supported the establishment of an independent inspector general’s office to investigate allegations of waste and corruption in City Hall, one of several changes to the way the city is run that were poised to win approval.
In addition to two statewide questions to amend Maryland’s constitution, Baltimore voters were tasked with deciding five proposed amendments to the city’s charter and four bond issues of $160 million. With 97 percent of city precincts reporting shortly after midnight, all of the questions were being widely supported.
By backing Question F with nearly 80 percent of the vote, Baltimore residents will change the charter to create an independent Inspector General’s Office. The position now reports to the mayor, whose agencies are the target of most investigations.
City Councilman Ryan Dorsey, who introduced the ballot question was thrilled with the result.
“Voting for good government, like supporting a strong inspector general, is to simply say we expect the best of ourselves,” Dorsey said.
This year, under the new leadership of Isabel Mercedes Cumming, the office has uncovered abuses at the city’s pension systems and at its human resources department. It also won a criminal case against a city employee who misused his access to computer records.
Cumming has said Mayor Catherine Pugh has never attempted to influence investigations, but that official independence would guarantee that future administrations could not meddle. Even after Pugh defended a city-sponsored jobs event that Cumming issued a critical report about last week, the mayor said she continued to support independence for the office.
“We are grateful for the opportunity to be an independent watchdog for the citizens of Baltimore,” Cumming said.
Question I would create a special fund to pay for housing, education and other projects designed to overcome racial and economic inequity in a city divided by race and wealth. Ballot approval does not guarantee money would be put into the fund. The mayor and City Council will have to agree on either a dedicated source of revenue or annual budget appropriations.
The fund, proposed by Councilman Brandon Scott, reflects a concern that city money has not always been spent fairly. There is some evidence that construction funds have flowed disproportionately to richer neighborhoods and those that are home largely to whites.
Question E would add language to the charter banning officials from privatizing the city’s drinking water and sewer systems. Baltimore would be the first big city to adopt such a provision.
Private companies have been interested in taking over the system for years. Supporters of public ownership worried that a proposal by Pugh to open the door to new kinds of city contracting deals could make it easier to privatize the system. Pugh has said she opposes privatization and supported the amendment.
Question G would change the way the Director of Legislative Reference is appointed and removed. The director and his staff aid the council in drafting bills and maintain city records. The change will put control of the appointment under the mayor, the City Council president and the city comptroller, all elected officials. The move was recommended by a charter review commission that Pugh created, but the change has raised some concerns about whether it would undermine the director’s independence.
Question H would open the door for the creation of a public financing system for elections. The council would have to design a system that could come into effect for the 2024 election.
Voters also were widely supporting routine bond issues, listed on the ballot as Questions A-D, that will allow the city to borrow $160 million in the 2020 and 2021 budget years. That figure is $15 million a year more than what voters approved in 2016, an increase budget officials say the city can safely afford.
The construction and other capital projects funded by the borrowing are approved by the mayor and council as part of the annual budget process.