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Black gets friendly reception at Council hearing on appointment

Softball questions for the city’s new finance director and no tough ones about his past.

Above: Harry E. Black speaks before the City Council appointments committee today.

Sometimes the most important news coming out of City Hall is what isn’t said.

Today, the City Council’s Executive Appointments Committee held a hearing on the suitability of Harry E. Black as Baltimore’s new director of finance without asking a single question about the turmoil that marked his tenure as finance director in Richmond, Va., or the discrepancy between the claims on his resume and the findings of a federal administrative judge.

The Council mild-mannered review came a day after Baltimore’s Chief Information Officer Rico J. Singleton – who sailed through the Council’s vetting process a year ago – resigned in the wake of a New York state audit alleging a series of improprieties at his former job in New York government.

Following an hour of repartee between candidate and councilmen, the appointments panel unanimously voted to recommend Black to the full council. (Black has been serving as acting director of finance since Jan. 30.)

The finance director is considered the most important appointed job in city government. With a staff of 300, he is responsible for the annual budget, collection of all taxes, accounting for all funds, debt management, procuring supplies and services for city agencies, and disposing of surplus city property.

The job pays $180,000 a year.

Members voting “aye” were chair William H. Cole IV, vice chair William “Pete” Welch, Nick Mosby and Carl Stokes. Rochelle “Rikki” Spector did not attend the hearing.

Black’s last government job – as chief financial officer and deputy administrator for Richmond – was marked by lawsuits and his attempted forced eviction of the school board. He was nicknamed as “the mayor’s pit bull” for his aggressive advocacy for former Richmond Mayor L. Douglas Wilder.

Councilmen Bill Cole, Nick Mosby and Pete Welch listen to Black during today's hearing. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

Councilmen Bill Cole, Nick Mosby and Pete Welch listen to Black during today's hearing. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

Employed by Wife’s Company

Since November 2008, when he left Richmond after its city council twice refused to name him chief administrative officer, Black has worked for his wife’s consulting company, Global Commerce Solutions.

Black also moonlighted for a Washington lobbying firm that helped the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority win federal stimulus funds.

Before his Richmond years, Black was a vice president for another consulting firm, McKissack & KcKissack, where he claimed on his resume to have overseen a $500-million capital construction program for the U.S. Job Corps.

The Brew reported that a federal administrative law judge ruled in 2006 that Black’s role at McKissack & McKissack “was in name only” and he had “no management authority” during the period of the Job Corps project.

Black has refused to comment on the judge’s ruling or the Brew article. Asked why, Black said the article “misconstrued many factual data points” and “made me look bad.”

“Native Son” Returns

Today’s hearing was basically a question-and-answer period with Black. There was no briefing given to the committee by staff, and the only document presented was the candidate’s resume.

Council members Welch and Mosby lauded his appointment and welcomed him back to Baltimore. (Black was born in New Jersey but raised in Park Heights and graduated from Dunbar High School).

Black took up the theme, saying, “You rarely ever get to come home in such a position as this.” Then commenting on the process by which he was selected, he said, “It’s been very natural and organic, and makes one feel that it’s something that’s meant to be.”

Peter O’Malley, chief of staff for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, said a national search to replace retiring finance director Edward Gallagher was undertaken last fall. California-based Ralph Andersen & Associates was hired to assist the mayor’s office.

The search yielded “several candidates,” but Black stood out from the group, O’Malley said today. (On January 5, O’Malley offered Black the job, according to a letter released to The Brew by the mayor’s office.)

Calling Black “extremely well qualified,” O’Malley said he would be “a tough fiscal manager” during the difficult budgetary times facing the city.

“Outsmart the Situation”

Black referred to his years in Richmond as a period of great success for the city, noting that he had “a good relationship” with bond-rating agencies that improved the city’s bond rating.

He said his “commercial paper initiative” – in which the city substituted low-interest promissory notes in place of bond obligations – gave the city access to $300 million of ready cash that could be spent on schools, streets and recreation centers.

Peter O'Malley, chief of staff for Mayor Rawlings-Blake, speaks on behalf of Black, seated at right. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

Peter O'Malley, chief of staff for Mayor Rawlings-Blake, speaks on behalf of Black, seated at right. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

He described his management style as “think outside the box and outsmart the situation.” He continued, “I’m not a custodian. My philosophy, my approach, is to get the job done in the most efficient, effective way.”

Asked what he hoped to accomplish over the next year, Black said that he would like to introduce “performance integration budgeting” as “a new layer” to the city’s outcome-based budgeting.

He also said the city’s billing services need to be updated and automated, beginning with the processing of tax bills.

Asked what he thought of government transparency, he declared: “I am a big proponent of transparency.”

And agreeing that Edward Gallagher set a high bar during his tenure, Black said his goal was “to be the best finance director in the city’s history.”

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