Baltimore’s spending board approved a new expense policy for elected officials Wednesday, adopting rules recommended by a city work group after an investigation into State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s travel costs.
The Board of Estimates approved the disclosure and approval policy by a vote of 3-1, with Democratic City Council President Nick Mosby abstaining. Mosby, who is also the chair of the board, is married to Marilyn Mosby, the city’s Democratic prosecutor.
Democratic City Comptroller Bill Henry was the “no” vote, unsuccessfully seeking a delay to address his concerns about the changes, which he warned would have the effect of giving mayors control over other elected officials’ travel.
Marilyn Mosby said in a statement that she welcomed the new disclosure requirements, while still taking issue with how they came about.
Effective immediately, elected officials must seek the board’s approval for travel expenses of $100 or more if a third party is paying the costs. Additionally, officials have to disclose details, including the purpose of a trip and who is paying.
The work group proposed the rules in the wake of an investigation by the city inspector general’s office into Marilyn Mosby’s travel. The office produced a report in February that said Mosby should have requested approval from the board for more than a dozen trips in 2018 and 2019.
The state’s attorney said that wasn’t necessary because the city wasn’t paying for the trips. City Solicitor Jim Shea said the city’s rules were ambiguous, and Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott formed the work group to examine the policies.
Meanwhile, the Mosbys’ finances have come under the scrutiny of federal authorities, who opened a criminal investigation into the couple. Their attorney, A. Scott Bolden, has called it “a political witch hunt” and said the couple is scrutinized because of their progressive politics.
Scott, who voted Wednesday for the city’s travel expense policy changes, said they bring needed transparency and put Baltimore’s 18 elected officials in line with city employees, who must seek such approval. The elected officials are the mayor, the comptroller, the council president, the 14 council members and the state’s attorney.
“While I don’t think that that would happen, there could be cases where elected officials are going to things or trying to go to places that maybe the city isn’t doing business with or going to a conference for a hate group,” Scott said.
The policy also requires elected officials to seek approval from the spending board for trips such as conferences, conventions, seminars and other “approved events dealing with topics of value to the city” if the travel would last more than a week. The board needs to approve any travel outside the continental United States, as well as any trips where the total value, including a portion paid by a third party, exceeds $800.
The recommendations were first scheduled for a vote May 19, but at Nick Mosby’s request, the vote was postponed twice.
While he abstained Wednesday, he voiced his support for creating parity among elected and nonelected officials.
“That was one key deliverable that I wanted, to make sure that at the end of the day, we will be responsible for doing the same thing,” Mosby said. “That, be it a police officer to the police commissioner, a DPW worker to the DPW director — just everybody under the city’s umbrella is in line with the same exact policy.”
In a statement, Marilyn Mosby said the changes developed from “the inspector general’s inaccurate assertion that I violated city rules regarding travel that was formally disclosed on all my ethics filings.”
“The city solicitor released an opinion stating that, ‘There is nothing in the city charter or the city code that would require approval of nonfunded travel by an elected official,’” said Mosby, referring to Shea’s report on the city’s rules at the time.
“As I have always disclosed all my work-related travel, I am in support of the board’s decision to require city elected officials to formally do the same,” she said.
Henry said the problem with the updated policy is that it makes politicians more accountable to the spending board than to the people who elected them. The mayor controls three of the five votes on the board: his, and those of his appointees, Shea and the public works director. The other members are Nick Mosby and Henry.
“We know that as the Board of Estimates is currently composed, the mayor’s decision is the one that counts...,” Henry said. “And that means what we are approving today is continuing the practice of the past of letting the mayor effectively decide what other elected officials get to do or don’t get to do.”
The Rev. Kobi Little, president of the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP, urged the spending body to again table the matter for further discussion. He argued the rules create further ambiguity as to whether council members need to disclose travel expenses related to jobs outside of their government work, adding that the policy is “anti-democratic.”
“We need to address the fact that this body seeks to use an administrative rule to curb powers and authorities delineated in state law and the city charter and the code of this city,” Little said.
Shea pushed back on the idea that the policy is an overreach of authority, arguing that trips paid for by third parties equate to small grants awarded to individual officials. He likened them to grants awarded to city agencies, which the spending board approves.
“There’s no sweeping under the rug under these new rules,” Shea said. “And I think that’s the accountability we want to have.”