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Editorial

Provide independent oversight of Baltimore’s inspector general | COMMENTARY

Given recent concerns about ethics in Baltimore City Hall — including those surrounding the legal defense fund of City Council President Nick Mosby and his state’s attorney wife, Marilyn Mosby — it was more than a little cheering to get word this week that at least one serious proposal to fix a lingering ethical concern in city government has arrived.

The proposed charter amendment introduced by Councilwoman Odette Ramos seeks to correct a glaring problem involving Inspector General Isabel Mercedes Cumming. Last year, Ms. Cumming issued a report critical of Ms. Mosby on a range of topics, from her frequent travels to her acceptance of gifts (or at least a lack of documentation that they had been auctioned off for charity). It soon became clear that IG’s oversight board could allow for retaliation against the IG following such reports, given that its current composition is largely designated by the mayor and council president.

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Ms. Cumming survived, perhaps due to the accuracy of her watchdog reporting and the attention the kerfuffle received in the media. But it still raised an important question: How should an inspector general be evaluated and held accountable? Clearly, if the point of an inspector general is to guard the proverbial henhouse, you can’t have an elected “fox” directly (or even indirectly) supervising her.

Under current law, the oversight board includes appointees from the mayor, the city solicitor (who is a mayoral appointee), the council president, a council member chosen by the president, the city comptroller and, if the mayor and council president agree, the deans of the University of Maryland and University of Baltimore law schools. With the exception of the deans, any of the above could be the subject of the next scathing report by Ms. Cumming. It’s not hard to see the problem here.

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Ms. Ramos offers an interesting solution. She would put the appointment authority largely in the hands of City Council members with a couple of twists. First, she’d make clear that it couldn’t include city or state employees, or elected officeholders, or lobbyists or their designees. But those nominated would have to possess some experience with matters including the law, ethics, job performance review and city government.

And here’s the most interesting wrinkle: Each council member would nominate one person, but to keep the board to just seven members, the final selection would be winnowed down by the chair of the city’s ethics board. The 14 council districts would (by a random draw) produce five nominees (Districts 1, 2 and 3 get one, Districts, 4, 5 and 6 get one, and so forth). The other two would also be selected in a similar manner from nominees by the city’s bar, the Association of Fraud Examiners and the Association of Certified Public Accountants.

Complicated? You bet. But there’s something to be said for severely limiting the appointment authority of any single elected official. That makes it highly unlikely that the oversight panel can be swayed by those in power. And yet it would also mean Ms. Cumming and future inspectors general would still be held accountable. Indeed, perhaps more so than today, given the qualifications expected of nominees. Granted, all that picking of random names out of hats is a little unorthodox, but at least this provides a useful starting point for exactly how far the proposed charter amendment should go. And as a charter amendment, the proposal would not only have to be approved by the council but by city voters as well.

A spokesman for Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott said he’s open to the idea, calling the office of the inspector general (a post created just four years ago) “an essential piece of Baltimore’s progress” whose integrity “should be unquestionable.” Ms. Cumming has expressed support for the measure, as well. The tougher obstacle may prove to be Council President Mosby. But given his ethical travails of late including the defense fund, which was found to violate rules forbidding donations by city contractors, it would seem politically unwise for him to kill, or even attempt to deep-six, such reform. But if that happens and the measure fails in City Council, there’s always the possibility of petitioning the proposed charter amendment to the ballot in 2024. Surely if any issue can get 10,000 signatures these days, it would be a move to toughen city ethics laws.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.


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