“Transparency, accountability and integrity” — those are the three traits Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott promised from his administration in an op-ed published in The Sun a few months after he took office in December 2020. “These ingredients are essential for building trust,” he wrote, “especially given the public skepticism toward City Hall.”
We would remind him of those words as he pushes forward a privately negotiated deal between the city and Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. to control the city’s underground conduit system.
Few details had been publicly revealed about the plan until Wednesday afternoon, when the mayor’s office released the proposed contract, nearly two weeks after the Baltimore Brew first broke the story about the effort. It proposes to turn over maintenance of the city’s 741-mile system of ancient terra cotta pipes — which contain telephone, electric and fiber-optic cables — to BGE, by far the biggest user of the system. The utility would then stop paying rent of about $28 million per year to use the conduit and instead pay for $134 million in capital improvements to it over four years, along with $1.5 million in annual maintenance. It had earlier been reported that BGE would be the sole decider of what upgrades to do when, rather than the city’s Department of Transportation.
Is this a good idea? Maybe. Who knows? Scott previously has complained that the cost to maintain the system exceeds the revenue the city earns from it by $7 million per year. But he’s failed to publicly explain the value of this plan, which is expected to go before the Board of Estimates — which Scott controls — for approval next week. What’s the rush? Why can’t the mayor at least wait for the results of a $50,000 study his administration commissioned last fall to look into the “best and highest use” of the conduit system before barreling forward?
This is no way to conduct the city’s business, especially when voters passed a charter amendment in November specifically prohibiting “the sale, transfer, or franchising of the City’s underground conduit system.” Scott says the effort is neither a sale nor a lease. But the move, even if legal, certainly appears to violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the amendment and to circumvent the wishes of voters. That’s not how City Hall builds trust.
Now, the City Council has launched an investigative committee, which is set to hold its first hearing Thursday to look into the deal, and voters are left wondering if their mayor truly represents them.
It’s no secret that BGE has been trying to buy the system, one of the largest municipally owned in the country, since at least 2015, offering $100 million for it then, as The Sun reported at the time. But critics complained that the city’s assets should remain owned by the city, which has the onus of figuring out how to maximize their value. It’s a sentiment voters appear to support not just regarding the wire and cable conduit, but also the water and sewage system. In 2020, city residents also passed a charter amendment banning the lease or sale of it.
Other municipalities that have sold their water systems, typically in need of major upgrades, to private businesses have come to regret it. They get a cash infusion to help offset other costs, but then have to face resident complaints if the service degrades under private ownership and prices rise for consumers. The fear is that the same will occur with the sale of conduit systems like Baltimore’s.
In a PowerPoint presentation obtained by The Baltimore Brew, staff of the conduit division within the city’s Department of Transportation said the plan “does not serve” the city, which “loses control and loses money” under the deal. It also puts BGE “in position to dictate conduit upgrades best for their electrical system needs without regard for what’s best for the telecommunication companies also sharing the city’s system.” Though BGE uses about three quarters of the conduit system, which the city rents space on, the rest is shared by Comcast, Verizon and several other entities.
Scott assured The Sun that the deal is good for the city, saying anything he does “is in the best interest of the residents.” That may be true; he routinely shows how much he cares about his hometown and the people living in it. But voters aren’t children in need of mayor-knows-best handling. They deserve a full accounting of moves that are made on their behalf with the property their taxes pay to maintain. That’s why elected officials are called “representatives”; they’re supposed to reflect the will of the people.
It’s time to put the brakes on the deal, explain its value, give the public some input and to exhibit the “transparency, accountability and integrity” the mayor so often says he holds dear.
Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.