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Scott proposal to put ‘citizen advocate’ on Baltimore spending board fails to advance

Baltimore City Council President Brandon Scott is shown in an April 6, 2020, photo of a virtual council meeting.
Baltimore City Council President Brandon Scott is shown in an April 6, 2020, photo of a virtual council meeting. (Kenneth K. Lam)

A proposal by the chair of Baltimore’s spending board Friday to replace the city’s public works director on the panel with an elected “citizen advocate” failed to advance from a City Council committee.

The five-member Board of Estimates is led by Democratic City Council President Brandon Scott. Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young is on the panel, as are two of his appointees, the public works director and the city solicitor. City Comptroller Joan Pratt, also a Democrat, is the fifth member. The board approves all city purchases, contracts and settlements worth more than $25,000.

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Scott introduced an amendment Friday in the council’s equity and structure committee to a charter bill, proposing a specific way to redistribute power on the board: replace the DPW head with a citizen advocate.

“This allows people to have a voice and allows for transparency on the Board of Estimates,” Scott said while introducing the amendment, adding it would put a public check on the city’s spending authority.

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The amendment passed 2-1, with Councilwoman Danielle McCray and Councilman Kristerfer Burnett in favor and Councilman Bill Henry opposed, but was met with opposition from the city’s finance and budget offices. As a result, the amended bill did not move forward.

Budget Director Robert Cenname said he understood the amendment’s intent, but the change would inject too much risk into the board and potentially slow down “critical, routine” services.

“We need to continue to deliver services efficiently,” Cenname said.

As the Democratic nominee for mayor, Scott said he would continue fighting for improvements to procurement and contract assessment, including a possible overhaul of the board.

“Everything is on the table,” Scott said in an interview after the hearing. “Most cities just don’t have the Board of Estimates. The whole process is going to be assessed.”

Offering public testimony, Dan Sparaco, who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for City Council president in June, said the citizen advocate position could evolve into a position tied to the mayor, diminishing its potential to be a true check on the spending power.

“The mayor is going to find person he wants and put them on the ticket, so the person basically becomes the mayor’s vote,” Sparaco said.

The citizen advocate would have served a four-year term, unless removed by the council for “incompetency, misconduct, willful neglect of duty, or felony or misdemeanor in office.” Citizens could have removed the person through a petition with 20% of all registered, active voters signing on or via the inspector general.

The committee advanced another Scott proposal, however, to add a fiscal note before council committees vote on certain pieces of legislation.

Scott is running in Tuesday’s election on a platform of making city government more efficient and accountable. Other parts of his New Way Forward platform seek to add a city administrator role — a charter amendment before voters on Tuesday — and the review of legislation through a more equitable lens.

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