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With new members in place, Baltimore spending board beefs up transparency on conflicts of interest

Democratic Baltimore City Comptroller Bill Henry is shown in 2018, when he represented the 4th District on the City Council.
Democratic Baltimore City Comptroller Bill Henry is shown in 2018, when he represented the 4th District on the City Council. (Kenneth K. Lam / The Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore’s spending board voted Wednesday to make its abstention process more transparent following a controversy earlier this year in which the city’s then-comptroller repeatedly voted to approve spending for organizations with which she was connected.

It was the first move by the five-person Board of Estimates since new members were sworn into office. New City Comptroller Bill Henry, a Democrat, proposed the changes.

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While members were previously required to maintain a list of groups with which they had ties that could create a conflict of interest and to disclose any abstentions during meetings, the new rules require members to state the reason for abstaining in a memo that will be posted online with the board’s agenda.

Board members approved the rules change without discussion.

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“This policy takes the current practice of abstaining one step further by requiring reasons for abstention and making the list readily available,” Henry said after the meeting. “This is the first of many policies to come to make the board more transparent and accessible.”

Henry, a former City Council member, is new to the spending board. So is Nick Mosby, Baltimore’s newly sworn-in Democratic council president. Mosby now chairs the Board of Estimates. Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott is also a member, as are acting Solicitor Dana Moore and acting Director of Public Works Matt Garbark.

In March, a report from Baltimore’s inspector general revealed then-Democratic Comptroller Joan Pratt voted 30 times in three years to approve $48 million of dollars worth of contracts, grants and other spending to organizations on her self-defined abstention list. The report also highlighted a pattern in Pratt’s office of adding and then removing organizations from her list.

Pratt defended her votes, saying the groups named in the inspector general’s report were organizations she had relationships with “many years prior” or ones where she had dealt with an individual who was part of the organization, rather than dealing the group as a whole.

An earlier report released in February found Pratt voted in 2017 to sell city property to the church where she worships. Pratt blamed her failure to abstain in that case on members of her staff, saying they should have caught the conflict of interest when reviewing the board’s agenda.

Pratt, who held the comptroller position since 1995, was defeated in the Democratic primary by Henry.

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