Baltimore City Councilman Ryan Dorsey has submitted legislation to make the city’s inspector general independent from the mayor’s office — a move he says is needed to alleviate concerns that the current system protects high-ranking officials.
“The city needs a watchdog and it needs to have real independence and teeth,” Dorsey said. “This is a bill that went through a lot of deliberation to really create independence and autonomy.”
Dorsey’s bill — which has six of 14 other council members signed on as co-sponsors — is a charter amendment, which means voters would have to ratify it in November if it passes.
The proposal would create an independent panel that would hire the inspector general to a six-year term. Only the panel — which would be composed of appointees of the mayor, council, city comptroller, state’s attorney, General Assembly and the deans of the city’s law schools — could remove the inspector general.
That would be a departure from the current system in which the inspector general reports to the city solicitor, who reports to the mayor.
Dorsey’s bill is consistent with recommendations included in a recent Abell Foundation report written by former Baltimore Inspector General Robert H. Pearre Jr. and former City Solicitor George Nilson, who argued for more independence for the agency — which has been criticized for busting low-level employees committing fraud, waste and abuse but not higher ranking managers.
The office was created in 2005 by an executive order issued by then-Mayor Martin O’Malley. The idea was to establish an independent, internal watchdog to investigate city operations.
But Pearre and Nilson wrote that the executive order does not shield the office from interference by mayors or their senior staff.
To guarantee full independence, they recommended recasting the office with a City Council ordinance that would prohibit mayoral administrations from firing an inspector general except for cause. In addition, they recommended six-year terms for the position, creating a community oversight panel and prohibiting certain officials from interfering with investigations.
Nilson said in an interview Monday that the office could be set up better.
“You could look at the track record. We had four inspector generals in eight years,” he said. “It’s a good idea to have an inspector general with as much independence as is reasonable.”
However, Nilson said he disagreed with the idea that inspector generals typically probe only low-ranking employees under the current system. He said he never saw political interference with an inspector general while he was city solicitor under two different mayors, and he pointed out former inspector generals have investigated agency heads and even a chief of staff.
“There wasn’t an occasion when I was the solicitor when the substantive path of an investigation or the outcome was jeopardizing the employment of the inspector general,” he said.
Isabel Cumming, who was recently hired as the city’s first female inspector general, said she already expects to operate without political influence. She nevertheless supports the legislation.
Cumming called the bill a “very positive step” and said it is consistent with national standards for how inspector general offices should be run.
“Trying to strengthen the independence of the inspector general is always a positive,” she said. “If you look at inspector generals throughout the United States, independence is crucial.”
Cumming said she had some questions about some proposals in the legislation, such as a clause that would make the inspector general the director of the city’s ethics board. She said she would prefer establishing a memorandum of understanding with that panel, rather than assuming an administrative role.
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She said she is in the process of staffing up her office, including hiring a deputy next week and advertising for two new investigators.
“I will have a full staff within the next month,” she said.
Lester Davis, a spokesman for City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, said Young favors strengthening the office, even though he hasn’t signed on as a co-sponsor.
“He’s always been for strong investigatory powers,” Davis said.
City Councilwoman Sharon Middleton, who is the vice president of the council, said she was looking forward to hearing more about Dorsey’s proposal.
“I have an open mind about the concept,” she said. “I’m always open for new and innovative ideas. We do have trust challenges in the city. I just want to see what points come out at the hearing.”
Mayor Catherine Pugh did not respond to a request for comment.