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Criticism of economic consultant’s work in Baltimore County is far from baseless

Criticism of economic consultant’s work in Baltimore County is far from baseless
Economist Anirban Basu has been accused of having a conflict of interest for representing real estate groups and companies while having other contracts with Baltimore County. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

Since my it was my testimony before the Baltimore County Council during a June 25 work session that prompted council deliberation about the proposed Sage Policy Group contract ("Economist’s work for private clients and Baltimore County raises conflict of interest questions,“ July 1), please allow me to comment further.

Council Chairman Tom Quirk states in a letter to the editor that “While my colleagues and I discovered through our deliberative process that certain legal and contract compliance concerns may indeed exist with Mr. Basu’s lobbying activities, we were right in not rushing to judgment on the serious question of a conflict of interest. (“Quirk: Criticisms of County Council’s handling of economic consultant contract are baseless,” Aug. 7).” In fact, as the livestream video clearly shows beginning an hour and four minutes into the tape, (http://baltimorecountymd.iqm2.com/Citizens/SplitView.aspx?Mode=Video&MeetingID=1457&Format=Agenda), there were there were NO comments or questions before my testimony, even though Mr. Quirk asked twice if there were comments or questions from the council after the county auditor read the item’s fiscal note.

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In my allotted three minutes, I expressed my concerns about several procurement items on the agenda, in particular the proposed renewal of the county’s no-bid consultant contract with Sage Policy Group.

(For the record, the proposed contract award was scheduled for a vote during the regular council legislative session July 1 and would have been a new sole source, non-competitive, four-year contract awarded to Sage Policy Group, following similar contracts since at least 2010.)

Anirban Basu, chairman and CEO of Sage Policy Group, has served as chairman of the Baltimore County Economic Advisory Council since 2002 and has provided economic analysis and personal income forecasting services for the county’s spending affordability committee since 2010. That’s a long time.

No doubt his ongoing work with these two groups has been very much appreciated. But in the run up to the May council vote on revenue enhancements proposed by new County Executive John Olszewski Jr., in three separate Center Maryland Facebook videos against the proposals, I believe Mr. Basu crossed the line from independent consultant to lobbyist for the development community and their business partners. In my view, Mr. Basu’s heavily promoted public opposition was a violation of his fiduciary responsibility while under contract with the county.

It’s one thing to manage potential conflicts of interest when you provide economic analysis for energy suppliers, law firms, and real estate developers, as well as for Associated Builders and Contractors (the largest construction networking organization in the region, according to Baltimore Business Journal), the Construction Financial Management Association, Maryland Realtors, and Marcum Construction Industry Group, as is the case with Mr. Basu and Sage Policy Group.

However, by acting as a public advocate against the county’s best efforts to achieve fiscal sustainability as he did, Mr. Basu himself undermined the appearance of objectivity that is necessary for credibility. By doing so, he himself raised the question of conflict of interest. By doing so, he went far beyond his “personal views,” as claimed by Chairman Quirk, acting instead as an unregistered lobbyist for developers. (Mr. Basu was not registered as a lobbyist with the Baltimore County Ethics Commission as of its June 2019 lobbyist registration report.)

So yes, as a county resident and former primary procurement officer for the State of Maryland, I believed it was fair to ask the council members if Mr. Basu — having been economic adviser to the council all these years of declining fiscal sustainability; his consulting company having received hundreds of thousands of dollars in Baltimore County Public Schools contracts (with many county residents finding the Sage Policy Group school enrollment projections flawed and contributory to seriously overcrowded schools); and Sage Policy Group having many clients whose interests may not always align with the county’s — why wouldn’t the county seek a new outside adviser for independent economic analysis?

As David Plymyer asked in his earlier commentary (“A conflict of interest in Baltimore County,” July 27), especially given the quadrennial comprehensive zoning process that begins next month, should they again choose Sage Policy Group? If they did, the Baltimore County Council would leave itself open to an accusation that the positions and preferences of builders and developers are being “channeled” to the council through their consultant. This is not about Mr. Basu’s integrity, or the value of his experience. Until the council or Mr. Basu decide otherwise, he remains chairman of the Baltimore County Economic Advisory Council.

It is a matter of perception, of honest and open public procurement and of ensuring independence. The goal is to provide the Baltimore County Council the best independent information upon which to make decisions that have far reaching ramifications affecting county residents for years to come.

Peta N. Richkus, Towson

The writer is former Maryland secretary of General Services and a former commissioner with the Port of Baltimore, Maryland Port Administration.

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