One week ago, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott forced a vote of the city’s spending board to approve a $134 million deal with Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. to maintain the city’s conduit system.
Or did he?
Comptroller Bill Henry doesn’t think so, and he’s placed the proposal back on the Board of Estimates agenda for the group’s next meeting. According to an agenda released Wednesday evening, the conduit is one of hundreds of items the board will consider March 1.
Henry, in his first term as comptroller, staked out his position just hours after last week’s unconventional vote by the Board of Estimates. The comptroller and Council President Nick Mosby, two of five members of the board, sat out the meeting in hopes of forcing a delay of the controversial deal, which is being investigated by a City Council committee.
The pair believed the meeting could not proceed without a five-member quorum required by the board’s rules.
Instead, the three remaining members of the board — the Democratic mayor and two of his appointees — proceeded with a vote on the proposal. Because Henry and Mosby, who are also Democrats, did not send representatives to sit in for them, they were counted as abstentions.
During a news conference following the vote, Henry contended the meeting never technically happened.
While the mayor controls a majority of the board, it’s Henry whose office serves as staff to the panel. The responsibility for assembling agendas every other week falls to the comptroller — thus the reappearance of the conduit item.
What that means for the conduit deal and the next Board of Estimates meeting, however, remains unclear. In a statement released Wednesday before the agenda was posted, Scott said the earlier vote was “valid and in compliance with the city charter and established BOE rules and procedures.”
City Solicitor Ebony Thompson, also a member of the board, said she considers the deal with BGE in effect as of last week’s vote.
[ Scott forces vote to OK conduit agreement, circumventing members who sat out meeting ]
Meanwhile, the utility giant submitted its rate case, a proposal for the next three years’ worth of customer prices, on Friday to the Public Service Commission. The proposal, which takes into account the deal with Baltimore, calls for rates for both gas and electricity to increase over the next three years by an average of 5% a year.
Concerns about rate increases and a lack of transparency surrounding the BGE deal led the City Council to convene a legislative investigative committee to look into the plan. The committee voted earlier this month to subpoena several documents from the city, including ledgers of how much it’s spent on conduit maintenance. The committee is due to meet again Thursday.
Currently, Baltimore pays to maintain the 700-mile subterranean conduit system that carries utility lines beneath the city. BGE is the system’s biggest user and pays rent to occupy 76% of the conduit.
Under the deal, BGE would pay a $1.5 million annual “occupancy fee” and invest in capital improvements. The mayor has argued the city has lost $7 million annually on the system as maintenance costs increased but rental fees diminished.
Henry and Mosby have both expressed concerns about the financial workings of the deal with BGE and have lamented a lack of availability of documents from the administration before the Board of Estimates vote.
Asked about the dispute this week, Scott said Baltimore’s charter states that members of the Board of Estimates cannot skip meetings.
“You must designate someone to attend in your stead,” he said during a news conference Tuesday on an unrelated topic.
The city’s charter does address absences, but it states that members “may” send alternates if they can’t attend. The board’s rules state that five members are needed for a quorum, composed of either the members or their designees.
Thompson contends Henry and Mosby’s absences counted as abstentions, completing the five votes needed for a quorum.
The board’s rules, which are separate from the city charter, define an abstention as when a member “declines to vote” on an item.
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“If a member abstains on a matter, that member will still count toward the quorum,” the rules state.
The rules are silent on whether members must be physically or virtually present for a quorum.
In his statement Wednesday, Scott said Henry and Mosby’s actions last week were an “attempt to violate” multiple rules of the Board of Estimates, including those that establish procedures for canceling a meeting, abstaining from a vote and deferring a contract beyond its effective date.
Board rules, which are separate from the city charter, require 24 hours’ notice to cancel a meeting, Scott noted. Also, a majority of board members must concur and a notice must be posted on the websites of the City Council and comptroller.
“The meeting was never canceled, the council president and comptroller never arranged for their required replacements, and the statement read on their behalf at the beginning of the meeting made clear their refusal to enter the BOE room was solely because they refused to vote on the BGE agreement,” Scott said in his statement. “Under all of these circumstances, their failure to appear and failure to arrange for their required substitute had to be treated as an abstention under the BOE rules.”
Mosby called last week on Democratic state Attorney General Anthony Brown to weigh in on the question of whether a legitimate meeting took place. Mosby’s spokeswoman Monica Lewis said Wednesday that the attorney general has requested a written opinion from the Scott administration explaining how a quorum was present. The mayor’s office said no such opinion has been requested.
A spokeswoman for the attorney general said the office will not comment on pending matters.