Baltimore's benefactors and mayor deserve benefit of the doubt

No one doubts the critical role played by the Baltimore City Ethics Code and its enforcement agency, the Baltimore City Ethics Board. On behalf of the mayor, the Baltimore City Law Department has sought to demonstrate to the ethics board that even if it grants a plenary exemption to rules requiring prior approval for personal, oral appeals by the mayor for support from large gatherings of potential donors, there will be no loss of transparency or accountability. But recent, rather sensationalized, accounts of the law department’s effort suggest that the important purposes of the code’s non-solicitation and conflict-of-interest provisions will be undermined if the board fashions such an exemption. This is simply not so. Optimal transparency and accountability can be achieved in this context by having all such donations made to the tax-exempt, fully transparent, independently audited Baltimore City Foundation.

Despite the cries of faux outrage by editorialists, the law department is confident that the members of the ethics board will give the mayor’s proposal the sober and respectful consideration it deserves.

When Mayor Pugh addresses a group at a breakfast, luncheon, community meeting or reception attended by individuals from across the wide swath of business and community organizations and the many others who make up our diverse regional community, it is wrong to suggest that what she sees are “controlled donors” and “non-controlled donors” or “lobbyists” and “non-lobbyists.” Might it be possible that she sees concerned citizens who care about the issues she cares about and are intent on making a positive difference by devoting some portion of their personal or business resources destined for charitable purposes to help Baltimore City and its most beleaguered residents? Donations to the Baltimore City Foundation are every bit as tax deductible, every bit as fully accounted for and every bit as desperately needed as are donations to other tax-exempt organizations seeking to provide health and welfare services to the underserved.

The mayor confronts these opportunities day-in and day-out, and it is her role and responsibility to issue a broad call to action among these essential stakeholders and encourage them to be part of the solutions required to address the systemic failings she is working to correct. And yet, under the ethics code, even without a direct “solicitation” by the mayor, if a person were to voluntarily offer to make a donation — handing the mayor a check made payable to the Baltimore City Foundation, Inc. — the mayor would have to refuse the check if there were any chance the potential donor might someday work with or for the city (or hope to do so). In other words, not only is the solicitation of donations to support city health and welfare programs prohibited, but acceptance of such gifts by the mayor are equally prohibited. This is an absurd presumption that those who wish to contribute and make a difference are merely in it for themselves and what they can get. Cynicism reigns.

For all our devotion to our beloved city, most of us natives and longtime city supporters recognize — and discuss, mostly in private — how Baltimore’s recurring fate of coming in second- or third-best (or worse) in so many realms is due to our collective small-mindedness. Rather than continue with this “we’re not good enough” mindset, the city, acting through the ethics board and the Board of Estimates (which, of course, the mayor controls) would be wise to tap into the deep commitment of the mayor to facilitate enhancements to our ability to support city programs. As we have advocated before the board, the mayor is the head of all city agencies, and she seeks through this exemption to enable increased support for educational programs beyond what limited general fund and other governmental revenues allow.

We think separate funding mechanisms could and should be established within the Baltimore City Foundation in the areas of (1) enhanced recreation opportunities and wellness; (2) reduced homelessness and affordable housing; (3) violence reduction and crime prevention; (4) equity in access to information technology; (5) access to public transportation; (6) reduction in untreated substance abuse and the challenges of meeting the needs of those suffering from behavioral health impairments; and (7) those seeking job readiness skills and work opportunities, especially returning citizens.

Such solicitation efforts would be broadly extended and so, inevitably, there will likely be some solicitations from persons and entities that do business with the city, or wish to do so. The solicitations, however, will target a broad range of potential donors (often unnamed and/or unidentified at the time of the solicitation) and will not specifically target any controlled donors. The solicitations process will make it clear to potential contributors — indeed, will emphasize — that a donation in support of a particular program will not afford the donor any special access or favored treatment from any city agency or official. All donations will be received, collected and managed by the Baltimore City Foundation, which will provide detailed and wholly transparent documentation of funds raised through the mayor’s efforts. The ethics board is fully authorized, through its regulatory power, to establish any form of additional reporting and data retention policies.

A final objection mentioned by some is that the Baltimore City Foundation, as a state- and federal-regulated tax-exempt charitable entity, is allowed to accept anonymous donations. Why, on earth, would we refuse support for city programs from those who wish to remain anonymous? To the contrary, there are at least two good reasons some people prefer to make anonymous charitable donations. One, they may not want friends, family or acquaintances to learn that they are capable of making such monetary donations. That wish should be respected. Second, such persons or entities may be well known as donors to certain beneficiaries but choose not to have revealed that certain other beneficiaries are also deserving of support. This, too, is entirely defensible and even honorable. A ready analogue is found in the many local employers who (well before “ban-the-box” became fashionable), quietly offered employment to returning citizens, while working assiduously to keep those efforts out of view of the always hovering editorialists. And a good thing, that.

Of course, the mayor will abide by whatever decision the ethics board makes and any conditions it imposes should the board find merit in the effort to enhance the city’s ability to assist those of its people most in need of assistance. The law department is perfectly ready and willing to be castigated by armchair critics as we move forward in our efforts to improve the city’s ability to deliver services to its people by any legitimate means, and in a manner that ensures accountability through independent auditing and reporting. Surely, given the challenges we face, this mayor and our community’s generous benefactors deserve some benefit of the doubt.

Andre M. Davis is Baltimore city Solicitor and head of the Baltimore City Law Department. He can reached at andre.davis@baltimorecity.gov.

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