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American Rescue Plan oversight bill advanced by Baltimore City Council committee over objections from mayor’s office

The Baltimore City Council’s Ways and Means Committee has advanced a bill requiring monthly reports on federal recovery spending over objections from officials with Mayor Brandon Scott’s administration.

The bill, introduced by Democratic Council President Nick Mosby last month, seeks to give the council additional oversight of the $641 million in American Rescue Plan money promised to the city by the federal government. Distribution of the money, half of which the city has received, is controlled by the Democratic mayor. Mosby’s bill would require monthly, quarterly and annual reporting to the council.

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Ahead of the legislation’s introduction, Scott and his staff agreed to hold quarterly updates for the council and give each council member a specified number of endorsements that can be used to advocate for various projects and boost the likelihood they get funded as the vetting process is underway. Council members each get 10 endorsements, while Mosby gets 15.

However, Scott’s staff objected Tuesday to the monthly reporting requirement. Budget Director Bob Cenname said would be labor-intensive and “not meaningful” for such a short time period. The data would change drastically from week-to-week and month-to-month, Cenname said.

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“We’re asking council to be smart and respectful about what information they need at what time,” he said.

Democratic Council Vice President Sharon Green Middleton said she was “taken aback” by Cenname’s answer. The American Rescue Plan funding is “a once-in-a-lifetime thing, and we have to get it right the first time,” she said.

“That just shows me the monthly reporting needs to happen,” she said of Cenname’s comments.

Several council members left the meeting without their questions being answered completely due to the absence of key city officials. The committee meeting, which was not scheduled or publicly announced until Monday night, coincided with a news conference held by Scott in Northwest Baltimore to announce a new round of American Rescue Plan awards. The two top officials in the city’s Office of Recovery Programs, which is responsible for distributing the funding, attended the news conference instead of the hearing.

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Scott publicly announced the news conference at 6:08 p.m. Monday. The committee hearing was announced in an email to members at 6:40 p.m.

“I see other agency heads and multiple people from other agencies who decided to show up,” Democratic Councilwoman Danielle McCray said. “We all decided to show up on this committee, but I can’t ask my questions because they’re not here.”

Democratic Councilman Kristerfer Burnett questioned whether the meeting adhered to the state Open Meetings Act. City attorney Elena DiPietro told him the law requires “reasonable notice” to be given, which can include a combination of postings online, social media posts and emails to media.

A meeting notice was posted on the city’s website late Monday, according to several council members. The City Council’s Twitter account tweeted about the meeting at 8:04 a.m. Tuesday, and the meeting began at 9:59 a.m.

Members of the committee, chaired by Democratic Councilman Eric Costello, proceeded with a vote despite Burnett’s concerns, defeating three amendments proposed by the administration that would have scaled back the reporting requirements. Ahead of that vote, a 15-minute recess was granted to allow Democratic Councilman Ryan Dorsey to draft an alternative compromise amendment. That, too, was defeated, by a vote of 5-2.

The bill passed out of committee by a vote of 5-1. with Burnett abstaining because he was uncomfortable with the short notice given for the meeting. Dorsey cast the dissenting vote, echoing Burnett’s statement while saying he concurred with Middleton’s remarks.

“It is important. We do need to get it right the first time and I do not believe this gets it right the first time,” he said.

The oversight bill will next face two votes by the full council body.

Scott began announcing recipients of the recovery funding earlier in the month, and at his Tuesday news conference announced a $50 million earmark for violence prevention in the city.

Scott’s spokesman, Cal Harris, said the mayor supports transparency in the award process and favors quarterly updates to the council because they align with reporting requirements to the U.S. Treasury Department.

“Transparency, accountability, and equity are essential tenets of the Scott administration, and this holds especially true for the Office of Recovery Programs,” Harris said.

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