Mayor says City Council should review ethics director

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said Wednesday the City Council should take the lead on evaluating the performance of the city's ethics director — not an oversight board on which she sits that hasn't met in years.

"I really believe the City Council should conduct an annual review ... just like it does with every other agency," Rawlings-Blake said.

But City Council President Bernard "Jack" Young said the law is clear that a little-known panel called the Board of Legislative Reference supervises the ethics director, and said he'll take steps to appoint a council member in hopes of reviving the panel.

"The charter is clear," said Lester Davis, a spokesman for Young. "There is no ambiguity. The Board of Legislative Reference is the responsible party. We know that board has not met in quite some time."

City ethics director Avery Aisenstark has come under fire for doing legal work on the side for developers who are challenging zoning decisions in Baltimore County. The same developers have had significant business interests before city agencies.

The watchdog group Common Cause has said Aisenstark's private legal work raises questions about his fitness to hold his $94,000-a-year city job.

Aisenstark — who was hired for his city position in the mid-1990s — is director of both the city's Department of Legislative Reference, on which he drafts bills and advises City Council members about the city code, and the ethics board, a five-member citizen panel which meets monthly.

According to the city charter, Aisenstark's position reports to the Board of Legislative Reference, composed of the mayor, the city solicitor, the president of the Johns Hopkins University, the deans of the University of Maryland and University of Baltimore law schools, the director of the Enoch Pratt Free Library and a member of the City Council. The board hasn't met in at least six years, city officials acknowledge.

Ronald Weich, the new dean of the University of Baltimore law school, said no one ever informed him that he was a member of the board.

"I didn't know about this board," he said. "Obviously, it's something I'll be looking into. It's something I'm pleased to participate in, if called upon."

If someone made a complaint about any other city official's work outside of city government, the ethics board might look into it. In Aisenstark's case, the inquiry would instead fall to the Board of Legislative Reference, city officials have said.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Rawlings-Blake called on the City Council to take the lead in looking into Aisenstark's performance. She also said the ethics board — for whom Aisenstark is an adviser — should conduct an annual review of his work.

If the ethics board or City Council found anything amiss with Aisenstark's performance, the mayor said, she would consider convening the oversight board.

"I'd be happy to work with the City Council president to convene a meeting of the Board of Legislative Reference to take any action," she said.

The responsibilities of the Board of Legislative Reference, according to the charter, are to hire an ethics director or remove him for "incompetence or neglect of duties." Under the city charter, both Rawlings-Blake and her city solicitor, George Nilson, are members of the seven-member board. In 1996, when then-Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke convened the board, he served as chairman.

The Baltimore Sun reported this month that Aisenstark, as a private lawyer, has done work on behalf of the Committee for Zoning Integrity, a group that is challenging some Baltimore County zoning decisions.

The group is funded by the Cordish Cos. and Howard Brown of David S. Brown Enterprises, as well as the owners of the Garrison Forest Plaza and Green Spring Station shopping centers, according to disclosure reports.

Cordish and Brown have both sought city government approvals in connection with their business interests in recent years. Cordish, for instance, sought a $3 million rent abatement last year on the Power Plant Live development. Brown is seeking city approval to demolish the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre to build two residential towers, three stories of retail space and underground parking.

Aisenstark, who runs a law firm called Avery Aisenstark LLC, attended a court hearing related to the zoning fight in Towson on Oct. 31 during business hours. He said he was doing legal work for Stuart Kaplow, the attorney for the committee. Aisenstark said he took leave from work at City Hall to attend the hearing.

In an email, Aisenstark said he is supervised by the ethics board, "which regularly monitors my work." He said that board will be "looking into" his outside legal work and "undoubtedly will submit its conclusions and recommendations to my appointing authority, the Board of Legislative Reference, for its consideration."