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Advisory panel reviewing Baltimore’s inspector general debates its makeup

An advisory panel charged with reviewing the performance of Baltimore Inspector General Isabel Mercedes Cumming continued to debate its own composition during the group’s meeting this week.

The meeting, the second in the group’s history, was convened to begin a performance review of Cumming that officials had hoped to complete by September or October. Several members and Cumming herself, however, were preoccupied at times with the question of who should be conducting the review.

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Since 2018, when an amendment was approved by voters, Baltimore’s charter has placed the responsibility for the review in the hands of an advisory panel, which includes multiple elected officials or their designees, the city’s solicitor and, on an optional basis, the deans of two law schools.

Cumming has objected to that format, sending a letter to board members ahead of their first meeting in July, questioning their independence. She argued that multiple members had a conflict of interest because they’ve been subject to her investigations.

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Cumming reiterated that objection at Wednesday’s meeting, using the majority of her opening remarks to the panel to speak about the board’s composition. The drafting of legislation in neighboring Baltimore County that would have further regulated its inspector general “solidified” her concerns, Cumming told members.

“The concern is not and was never the qualifications of each board member here,” she said. “Rather it’s a question of politics and influence.”

Several members of the panel, including Solicitor Jim Shea, the group’s chairman, questioned Cumming at length about the operation of her office.

“My focus is on doing what I’m supposed to do under the charter, which is understanding the inspector general’s office,” Shea said at the meeting’s outset.

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Some board members struck back at the assertion that they were too political for their positions.

“Prior to your letter, had you ever challenged the makeup of this board?” asked Shea, alluding to the fact that Cumming testified before the Baltimore City Council on behalf of the charter amendment that created the board.

Cumming contended that she expressed reservations at a meeting of the Board of Estimates. Shea requested written or recorded copies of her statements.

“There aren’t any,” she responded.

Panel member Michael Huber, chief of staff to Mayor Brandon Scott and his designee on the advisory panel, questioned Cumming about whether she reviewed the text of the amendment before supporting it. She responded that she had.

“On your website there’s a page thanking voters and celebrating the passage of this charter amendment, right?” Huber said.

“Without question, I supported it,” Cumming said. “But as time has gone on, I realized that compared to other inspector general’s offices, it is not the best practices. That is what I’m trying to say. That’s it.”

Donald Tobin, dean of the University of Maryland School of Law and a panel member, said his concern is ensuring that the makeup of the board is independent, particularly in the eyes of the Association of Inspectors General “Green Book,” which is a standard used to establish best practices for inspectors general.

“From my perspective, the City Council and the people of Baltimore made a decision to move the inspector general’s office for more independence,” he said. “Whether they got it right or not, the people of Baltimore can decide.”

Panel members asked numerous procedural questions about the office, touching repeatedly upon the process officials use to decide whether a complaint is worthy of an investigation and whether the subjects of investigations are informed that an investigation is underway.

Members also asked about a pay increase Cumming received. Her pay rose to $183,200 for fiscal year 2022, a $32,000 increase over the previous year. Cumming said she did not request the increase. She was instead notified by the chief of staff for then-Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young in September 2020 that she was getting the increase as an “internal alignment” related to the reclassification of her position.

“I took a 35% pay cut to come here,” Cumming said. “I did not think it was that unusual that I received an increase.”

The advisory panel has not set a date for its next meeting.

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