The Comptroller is supposed to be the City’s independently elected financial watchdog. They’re supposed to be keeping an eye on the Mayor, making sure that the Mayor is making good deals for the City, making sure the agencies are being effective and efficient. Most importantly though, they’re supposed to be taking all of the information that they have access to and sharing it with us, the public, so that we can hold the Mayor and agencies accountable for what they are and aren’t doing. I’m running for this office because we need a Comptroller who will take the transparency, openness, and accountability functions of the office seriously. We need a Comptroller who is more interested in fulfilling those duties than in keeping the Mayor or the politically-connected happy. We need a Comptroller who is willing and able to speak truth to power - and that doesn’t just mean being willing to disagree with the Mayor over policy. It means telling the people of Baltimore City what is actually going on at City Hall, because they are the real power when it comes to governing.
Residents have called for more audits of Baltimore’s government. Do you think the city’s auditing process needs to change -- why or why not?
Yes, more audits are needed. Our current approach is designed to meet the letter of the law and treats the Charter requirement as a ceiling, not a floor. Just four agencies - Public Works, Police, Transportation, and Fire - account for more than 60% of City payroll and more than 50% of the City’s total spending. They also are responsible for many of the most critical outcomes that affect our lives every day. We should have extensive, annual audits for these agencies and supplemental audits of programs or outcomes for which they are responsible.
However, while we should be doing more audits, it’s not just the quantity that matters; it’s the quality, too. Better auditing is key to making the real progress in transforming Baltimore City government which has eluded us for so long. We should be thinking in terms of Audit Focus Areas, organizing some of our investigations across agency silos on topics like City subsidies and other development incentives, public safety, infrastructure, information technology, service delivery (ideally, in conjunction with a reinvigorated Citistat process) and the implementation of any major new legislation, such as Complete Streets or the Equity Assessment Program.
How would you work to modernize the Office of the Comptroller?
The Comptroller’s office is responsible for preparing the weekly agendas and minutes for the Board of Estimates, which approves our City’s largest contracts and transactions. Right now both City government and the public have little access to the important information that flows through the Comptroller’s office each week, due to the use of antiquated processes and technology.
This office still runs largely the way it did in 1995, when the incumbent was first elected, and likely has not modernized significantly since the days of Hyman Pressman. Currently, the office requires City agencies to provide multiple hard copies of spending requests, and pays staff using typewriters to re-type requests into a master document that becomes each week’s Board of Estimates agenda. This summary document is scanned and uploaded to the Comptroller’s website each week - that is the extent of the digital archives of our City’s main financial authority, the one handling our largest contracts and other transactions.
Agencies should submit such requests digitally, which would be more efficient and reduce the risk of human error. Working from a searchable database would make information about City government easier to retrieve, share, and analyze. Other cities have digitized these kinds of records and even offer public access to them via the internet. See for example the Open Book Pittsburgh database.
I would also pair this with a public, online dashboard for audits and other relevant studies and reports that make it easy for the public to track ongoing audit activity.
After the “Healthy Holly” scandal, voters are looking for more transparency around city spending. How would you ensure greater openness from the comptroller’s office?
We need a leader who proactively shows their commitment to openness and transparency in City government. We need a leader who wants to empower the public by actively helping to ensure that they are well- informed.
To properly serve as an independent watchdog, the Comptroller’s office must be one of the most visible and communicative offices in City government. Its job is to make information available, not keep it a secret. As Comptroller, I will use technology and open data practices to remove the veil of secrecy from the Board of Estimates, so that everyone has access to vital public information.
The Comptroller’s office also has the access and bandwidth to develop and release important data sets, to better inform the public. For example, in New York City, the Comptroller’s office runs the City’s open data program.
I have also already proposed a charter amendment granting subpoena power to the Department of Audits.
Many Comptroller’s, Auditors, and similar officials across the country can issue subpoenas for information related to a performance audit and Baltimore should have this tool as well.
Finally, now that the Inspector General’s office is truly independent, I would encourage a much closer partnership between the Comptroller and the Inspector General, so that the two offices could share resources in their efforts to root out corruption and waste at City Hall.
Council President Brandon Scott is proposing restructuring the Board of Estimates. Do you support that move?
While it’s clear that Board of Estimates reform is needed, the simplest answer to this question is “I don’t know yet,” whether Council President Scott’s proposal is the one the City should pursue.
Council President Scott has made it clear that he is open to amendments which address the logistical concerns that the Administration has raised, which is commendable.
My main concern about the proposal as written is that removing the two appointed members of the Board of Estimates will not help equalize the balance of power between the Mayor and the City Council - it simply reduces the power of the Mayor, by increasing the power of the Comptroller and the Council President. It may even undercut the effectiveness of the Comptroller’s independent watchdog role, if the Comptroller has a more substantive role in actually setting policy and directing operations of City agencies.
Personally, I don’t think a “strong mayor” system is intrinsically bad; unfortunately, the one we have now is so strong that all of the checks and balances - needed for any democratic government to function ideally - aren’t there. In contrast, the charter amendments I have offered over the years were all designed more to strengthen the checks and balances that we as citizens often feel we need. My goal has been to help make the City Council a more equal partner in the governance of the City, while still acknowledging the accountability advantage of a strong mayor.