Baltimore’s Board of Ethics has asked Mayor Brandon Scott to delay a decision on legislation passed by the City Council that would change pension eligibility requirements, saying it is a potential violation of the city’s ethics ordinance.
The legislation, approved by the council last week, would decrease the number of years from 12 to 8 needed for elected officials, including the council, to be eligible for a public pension. The bill, passed by an 8-5 vote, with two members abstaining, would affect members of the council who are currently serving.
As passed, the legislation could create the appearance of a conflict of interest, board chairman Stephan Fogleman wrote in a letter to Scott sent Monday.
“The Ethics Board is concerned it is impossible for the current council, while in term, to have voted in favor of the amendment without giving the appearance of a conflict of interest,” the board stated.
Baltimore’s ethics law requires public officials to disqualify themselves from decisions in which they have an interest, the board noted.
The City Council approved the legislation last week after Council President Nick Mosby, the bill’s sponsor, and others argued it was necessitated by the passage of Question K, a charter amendment that will establish term limits. Question K was approved by 72% of the city’s voters earlier this month and will limit officials to two four-year terms in office as mayor, comptroller and City Council. The amendment will be effective in 2024.
The movement to get the question onto the ballot was funded almost entirely by a $525,000 investment from David Smith, chairman of Hunt Valley-based Sinclair Broadcast Group. The group owns local station Fox 45, a frequent critic of top officials inside City Hall.
In its letter, the ethics board said it did not receive a request to weigh in on the pension legislation but reviewed the bill nonetheless, citing a provision of the ethics law that calls for its provisions to be “liberally construed to accomplish their purposes.”
Scott has until January to consider whether to sign or veto the measure. His spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request to comment on his intentions.
Fogleman said the board hopes to issue a formal opinion in the next few weeks, well ahead of the January deadline for Scott’s decision.
“We just don’t want him to advance it without us giving him a formal opinion,” Fogleman said.
The council was warned ahead of its vote that changing its own benefits would be an unconventional move. David Randall, executive director of the Baltimore Employees’ and Elected Officials’ Retirement Systems, wrote in a letter to the council that “while it may not be unconstitutional, it is highly unusual for elected officials to enhance their benefits while in term.”
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Councilwoman Odette Ramos attempted to introduce an amendment during the group’s vote on the measure that would have delayed eligibility for eight-year vesting until 2024, the next election cycle for city officials. The amendment was never introduced due to a procedural issue cited by Mosby.
Council’s consideration of the pension bill moved quickly. The measure was first introduced in late October. City finance and retirement officials pleaded with the council to wait to pass the bill, arguing a full financial analysis should be performed first. The pension plan, which is currently fully funded, paid out about $1.5 million in fiscal year 2022 to 31 retired officials and beneficiaries.
Baltimore’s elected official retirement plan has two tiers of benefits: one for officials who were elected before December 2016 and one for those elected after. Officials elected before 2016 receive 2.5% multiplied by their years of service and their annual salary of their highest position held.
Officials elected after 2016 receive a pension based on the same formula, but it is capped at 60% of their compensation at the time of retirement.
Currently, the mayor is paid $189,044. Both the comptroller and City Council president make $131,798. Council members are paid $73,966.
There are also built-in increases. After two years of receiving benefits, officials elected before 2016 receive an increase tied to the current compensation of the position held before they retired. An official who retired as the city’s mayor, for example, would receive an increase at the same rate as the current mayor.
Officials elected after 2016 are capped at a 1.5% increase until age 65 and 2% thereafter, but they have to wait only one year for the increases to begin.