ANALYSIS: How the watered-down audits bill got that way

Last-minute amendments by Mayor Rawlings-Blake's Council allies defang audits bill.

jim kraft

Councilman James Kraft speaks in favor of a “compromise” audit bill last night, which went down in defeat by the mayor’s allies.

Photo by: Mark Reutter

Shortly before a City Council vote last night on a bill allowing Baltimore voters to decide if municipal agencies should be regularly audited, Councilman Robert Curran came forward with nine amendments.

The amendments were in an envelope that had been given to him at the start of the meeting by Andrew Smullian, senior policy adviser for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, according to an eyewitness.

The amendments pushed back the audit requirement for city agencies from every two to every four years, delayed the start date to 2014, and even altered the kind of audit from a traditional financial audit to a nebulous “performance” audit.

It was a masterful stealth attack by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

At the end of a meeting full of byzantine twists, the administration got what it apparently wanted – a greatly weakened measure, which is expected to hobble to a final vote at a special Council session on August 13. (Curran’s voice mailbox was full and Smullian did not return calls from The Brew seeking comment this morning.)

Throughout the auditing controversy, Rawlings-Blake has positioned herself above the fray. She “has always supported audits,” her spokesman, Ian Brennan, explained this morning, but auditing is the duty of City Comptroller Joan Pratt, not her office.

“The mayor is hopeful that the Council reconvenes in a special meeting to approve the measure in order to meet the deadline to get it before the voters in November,” Brennan added magnanimously.

The Mechanics of Defeat

The first version of the bill, calling for yearly audits of all city agencies, was voted down three weeks ago.

After the vote, the bill’s sponsor, Councilman Carl Stokes, accused Rawlings-Blake of strong-arming three councilmen to switch their vote and defeat the bill. (For their part, the councilmen – Brandon Scott, Nick Mosby and William H. Cole IV – said they are very pro-audit, but just didn’t like Stokes’ bill.)

Last Thursday, the Council’s Judiciary and Legislative Investigations Committee, chaired by Councilman James B. Kraft, met to strike a compromise with the mayor’s office.

The panel changed the original yearly audit requirement to every other year and limited auditing to 14 agencies. (The original legislation had called for annual audits of all city agencies.)

Kraft thought he had the mayor’s support to get the bill approved last night on second and third reader.

Little did he know the administration was planning an ambush.

Councilman Carl Stokes speaks in favor of the compromise audit bill, while William H. Coles IV, who voted against the bill, listens. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

Councilman Carl Stokes speaks in favor of the compromise audit bill, while William H. Cole IV, who voted against the measure, listens. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

Kraft spelled out his own provisions before sheepishly telling a crowd packing the Council chambers: “We received amendments at 5 p.m.”

This was the first time the Curran amendments were publicly disclosed.

A vote was first taken on the compromise bill approved by Kraft’s committee. The votes split along the divide of last month, with Scott, Mosby and Cole joining Curran, Edward Reisinger and William “Pete” Welch (still listed as a bill co-sponsor) to defeat the measure by a 6-6 deadlock.

Three Council members were absent – Helen Holton, Sharon Green Middleton and Rochelle “Rikki” Spector. Holton had voted in favor of the original bill, while Middleton and Spector were against it, making for the original 8-7 defeat.

Amendment Time

As the mayor’s lobbyists, Kimberly Washington, Angela Gibson and Smullian, sat in the chambers, Curran rose to speak.

He and Councilman Reisinger, the mayor’s floor whip, requested that the Curran amendments be voted on. Councilman Cole made a quick dash to confer with Kim Washington.

But before any vote was taken, Councilman Mary Pat Clarke jumped up.

She demanded that the Curran amendment that called for a “performance audit” (as opposed to a financial audit) be voted on separately.

What’s a Performance Audit?

Clarke questioned what a performance audit really was – no one on the Council seemed to know. (According to this government website, performance audits are reviews of how well an agency fulfills its mandate and typically supplement, not substitute for, a financial audit.)

Clarke’s motion was accepted by City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, and the Curran forces seemed momentarily stunned.

Then came the votes. The performance audit amendment was defeated 6-6 (thereby keeping the requirement for financial audits), while the eight other amendments passed 8-4.

Clarke called the retention of the requirement for financial audits “a save” in an otherwise “disappointing vote for advocates of a strong bill.”

Mary Pat Clarke, seen outside of City Hall in 2010, rallied votes against proposed "performance" audits. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Mary Pat Clarke, seen outside of City Hall in 2010, rallied votes against proposed “performance” audits of city agencies. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Votes on the Curran amendments were followed by two more votes.

The first passed the amended bill to second reader, and the second failed to achieve a supermajority of 12 votes needed to pass the bill to third and final reader in the same Council session (known as a “double reader”).

Still in Limbo

Thus, the audit bill is still a vote away from going on the November ballot.

City Council President Young announced a special meeting on August 13 to take up the legislation.

Toward the end of last night’s session, various Council members staked out their reasons for opposing or backing the audit bill.

For Council President Young, the new bill was “completely watered down” from the original measure. (Young has consistently voted for the tougher audit bill.)

For Councilman Mosby, who helped torpedo the original bill and supported the Curran amendments, the new bill would “streamline” audits “from every two years to four years.”

He called on Council members not to get hung up over whether audits would be conducted every second or fourth year.

A Big Victory, says Scott

Taking the lead from Mosby, Councilman Scott declared the amended bill a legislative triumph. Noting that city agencies hadn’t been audited “in my lifetime,” Scott crowed that now they would be audited every four years.

For Councilman Bill Henry, who tried to table the Curran amendments, the approved bill continued the city’s tradition of not knowing if its annual budgets were accurate.

Auditing city agencies every fourth year “makes you wonder about the budget of the other three years,” he said.

As for Councilman Curran, he sounded both upbeat and defensive. “It may not be the best, but it’s a start,” he said, before adding, “We’re not hiding anything down here.”

Under the tentative bill, 12 city agencies would audited every four years beginning in 2014: Baltimore Development Corp. (BDC), Finance, Fire, General Services, Housing and Community Development, Human Resources, Law, Planning, Police, Public Works, Transportation and Mayor’s Office of Information Technology (MOIT).

According to city officials, these agencies have not been audited for 25 or more years. The audits will be conducted by the city auditor, Robert L. McCarty Jr., under the direction of City Comptroller Pratt.

Enough Staff to Audit?

Whether the audit department has sufficient staff to conduct the audits is open to debate.

The comptroller say she has lacked sufficient staff to conduct major agency audits, while the mayor says she will add three audit positions to McCarty’s staff this year.

An analysis of McCarty’s work was summarized in this Brew piece.

To win final passage at the next Council meeting, the audit bill requires a simple majority of votes.

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  • Mairzdoatz

    Note to Mayor: What a total crock. (That is all.)

  • ConnellHyde

    The standard of debate in that council chamber was frankly embarrassing. After throwing this around for months, these people can’t even be bothered to find out the difference between a performance and a financial audit? Almost no recognition of what goes on anywhere else or what the best auditing practices are in other places (clue: they look absolutely nothing like what Baltimore has at the moment, or might have because of this bill). Councilman Robert ‘Bring it On’ Curran saying they have ‘nothing to hide’, yet then going on to list the audits he has called for in the past that have uncovered irregularities. Thanks for cleaning house, Bob, we can all sleep easier tonight! Deceitfully wittering on about how much audits ‘cost’ without acknowledging that audits recover far more in revenues. And all of them — even Stokes, Young and Henry — seem ok with the idea that the Mayor should carry on dictating the auditing process. Who, or what, is the  Mayor trying to protect here?

  • Bmorepanic

    I wonder what Bob wanted that was worth carrying water for SRB?

  • The Fire Next Time

    The lure of political acceptance packaged alongside the mayor’s ‘with us or against us’ political order has induced even in some of the more able among us a political neuterism that I find downright repulsive and shameful. 

  • ConnellHyde

    Sorry, forgot to say this is, as usual, an excellent piece, exposing the shenanigans that passes for open debate. Its bad enough that the voters didn’t get to see or comment on the nine amendments, never mind that our elected politicians didn’t get to see them until the moment the meeting began.

    Also, Mark, the auditor’s office has plenty of staff to do the audits. Compared to other cities that audit far more effectively with far fewer auditors, it could even be argued that with 30-plus auditors, Baltimore’s audit office is bloated. I hope our elected officials have the smarts and cojones to ask some of these questions at the informational hearing of the audit office that was called for last night.

  • GMan

    SRB’s vulnerabilities and weaknesses is what allowed this audit situation to come up at all. Think O’Malley or even Sheila Dixon would have ever allowed this to get his far? “Progress” in a time of revolution I suppose. 

    In the end though, most blame falls on Joan Pratt’s shoulders. Mayor isn’t ever going to hand over power to other people, but Pratt can be a continuous voice of scrutiny. How freaking easy would it be to go ape every year, target areas of real waste and attack the executive position while also making a name for yourself. At a cynical, pragmatic level it makes total sense. A lot of failure in the Comptroller’s Office. 

    • Richard

      The point about Pratt is well taken. This woman rarely opens her mouth. She has a unique bully pulpit. Why doesn’t she use it?

    • Gerald Neily

      Let’s not too get carried away here, GMan, or should we? SRB was elected in a landslide just last year. The people love her. The Sun loves her. The Governor loves her, and he may become President in four years. SRB holds the strongest mayoralty in America, so if all else fails, she can veto anything she doesn’t like. If even that fails, O’Malley will give her a nice job. If that fails, another of her many cohorts will. And while SRB has been far more popular than any of the outsiders, she has never been as popular as Sheila Dixon, who remains Baltimore’s most popular politician, and will be supremely grateful to SRB for protecting the mayoralty in her stead.

      • ConnellHyde

        Agree with Fire on this. Even the Sun has been getting a bit antsy recently. And Mark’s piece the other day on the Board of Estimates — — noted how SRB was annoyed with the media attention and “misinformation” (a touch ironic given how her office seems incapable of picking the phone up whenever the media calls!!). Maybe she’s not as ice cool as she tries to make out.

        • Gerald Neily

          OK, I was overstating it by calling it “love”. “Obedience” is closer. The vast majority who don’t vote or otherwise perpetuate the sorry status quo are showing their obedience to the system. If the Sun is more “antsy” than usual lately, it’s just because they have to increasingly squirm to maintain their tenuous media position.  I agree with Fire and Metal. When you “vote with yer feet”, any day can be voting day – no need to wait til 2016 (previously 2015 before her “free year”) as Kim is. Not that I want to, but plenty of people of all persuasions already have. And what will change in 2016 anyway? We had Pugh, Rolley and Landers to chose from last year. In 2016, we’ll have unrepentant ex-con Dixon. But I wouldn’t condemn all democracies as Unellu apparently has. Baltimore is at the cutting edge of this “ossification” process while “other cities see growth” as Fire and Metal also says. Still, Unellu’s point is well taken. Baltimore is a fascinating case study for something.

      • Carol Ott

        Mayor SRB hardly won by “a landslide” — she happened to get lucky because most voters didn’t bother to show up.  What does that tell you?

        Until Baltimore can produce viable alternate candidates instead of the usual Tom, Dick, and Harry dog and pony show, voter apathy will remain high, and voter turnout will remain low.

        Fortunately, a few of our electeds have made a few rookie mistakes — so 2016 might actually be an interesting election year.  I predict a few short-lived political careers.

  • Macnac

    Compliments to Mark for and exceptionally well written piece.   It is unusual that, in this day and age, a piece of political reporting can make me physically ill….. but with the help of SRB and her minions providing the grist… you’ve done it!!

  • Fire and Metal

    The make up of the Baltimore City Council changes – but the joke remains squarely on the residents.  Is it any wonder this city continues to decline as most other urban cities see growth?  Preventing real financial audits of city agencies is a big victory for Mayor Failings Blake and the taxpayer of the city is once again the loser.  Vote with yer feet. 

  • Kim Trueheart

    The reign of our dictatorial Princess of BMore Poli-Tricks continues … 1577 more days of this CRAP until November 8, 2016 y’all!!!

  • Unellu

    Truly insightful article.  The voters are mere pawns is a shell game engineered by the political class.  Not enough auditors, too expensive, impractical, every 4 years, every 2 years–the acts of chicanery are too numerous to count.  In the end there is no will to do the audits, know the truth, save the money, clean the city govt., and place integrity above personal gain and political oneupsmanship.  This is the tragedy of modern democracies.  Democracy is always described as a system better than others. But democracies become shams and degenerate into autocracies or ossify into plutocracies when elections are used to legitimize corruption, as is the case with the city of Baltimore.     

  • Baltimoreplaces

    A man was recently sentenced when he was caught stealing $1.4 Million from Baltimore Housing in 2010.  The FBI picked up on this from the man’s strange banking transactions.  The city NEVER saw it happening, and probably would not have picked up on it.  Every year millons just seem to go missing.  I think the actual number of tax payer funds being stolen, wasted, abused and mismanaged would be staggering if it were to ever come to light. 

    I completely understand why this city does not want audits, especially SRB.  If it came to light that under her term as Mayor and CC Pres. $100’s millions or more were unaccounted for this would certainly put a damper on her higher political aspirations.

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