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Public evaluation of a public job: Baltimore IG has a great idea | COMMENTARY

Baltimore City Inspector General Isabel Mercedes Cumming is the first woman and first Latina in the role of the city's watchdog. Her aggressive pursuit of public corruption has drawn praise - and criticism. File. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun).
Baltimore City Inspector General Isabel Mercedes Cumming is the first woman and first Latina in the role of the city's watchdog. Her aggressive pursuit of public corruption has drawn praise - and criticism. File. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun). (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore City Inspector General Isabel Mercedes Cumming has been playing something of a cat-and-mouse game with City Hall in recent weeks. Worried that Mayor Brandon Scott, Council President Nick Mosby and others in elected office might be interested in curbing her watchdog role through a suddenly-energized oversight board of mostly political appointees, Ms. Cumming formally requested that her performance review be conducted in public. The city law department said not so fast. First, the whole business of an evaluation was delayed, and then a legal opinion was issued questioning whether the city had the authority to conduct such a personnel matter in public — and if doing so might put board members in some sort of civil liability.

Baltimoreans ought to be skeptical. Since her hiring in 2018, Ms. Cumming has lived up to her promise that “nobody is off limits” in her investigations of waste, fraud and abuse. In the process, she has ruffled more feathers than a hurricane in a chicken coop. That includes, most notably, Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, whose frequent travels and financial dealings received the IG’s critical eye earlier this year. The IG found no criminal behavior, but questioning of Ms. Mosby’s travel — how, for example, she missed at least 59 more days of work than the 85 she had previously reported — triggered a political backlash from Ms. Mosby and her supporters and fueled efforts to ramp up oversight of the IG’s office.

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Whether state law precludes City Hall from conducting any performance review in public (and, again, there is reason for serious skepticism about that), Ms. Cumming is on to something. If an inspector general’s office is all about bringing misdeeds into public view, why should she not be held to the same standard? Why not make her, or anyone else to hold the office, all about transparency? The solution here is to make a public evaluation of an inspector general the default position of any advisory board. Let the officeholder elect to close doors if he or she prefers, but if sunlight works well for her own investigations, it ought to be just the disinfectant required to make sure politicians aren’t seeking to diminish her role out of their own self-interest.

If, as the law office suggests, this runs counter to state law, then fine, the next Maryland General Assembly session is just two months away, and lawmakers could carve out an exception, if necessary, to make this possible. Who doesn’t want Baltimore government to be run as effectively, efficiently and legally as possible?

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And that last point is worth underscoring. There are any number of difficult issues that hold this city back. Concentrated poverty, failing public infrastructure, systemic racism, substance abuse, violent crime. But among them is an ineffective and occasionally corrupt government. We’re not talking about major intrigues like the “Healthy Holly” affair that landed a mayor in prison. The bread-and-butter of the IG has been the small atrocities like a poorly-maintained sexual health clinic in Druid Hill with rats in the basement, a costly lack of controls over city vehicle auctions or preferential treatment in how police assign overtime. And that’s just covering the last three months of inquiries. City residents deserve better.

That’s not to suggest the inspector general should not have oversight. No one should be spared a critical eye. But the danger of political backroom manipulation is too great not to have oversight of the oversight board. And that’s where the public comes in. The mayor, the council, the city’s top prosecutor, all work for the people of Baltimore. So it just makes sense for the people to always have the final say on their job performance. And a shoutout here to the local news site, Baltimore Brew, for championing Ms. Cumming’s cause above and beyond the call of duty. The IG isn’t a politician, she’s a career investigator, prosecutor and auditor. What Baltimore needs from her most of all is this: more of the same.

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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