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Politicsby Mark Reutter6:27 pmJul 29, 20150

Board scuttles plan to pay part-time hearing officers $150,000 a year

An administrative error gave the impression of “a very large bump-up in salary,” mayor says

Above: Mayor Rawlings-Blake speaks to reporters earlier today.

The Board of Estimates today withdrew a proposal that would authorize $750,000 in salaries to five private lawyers serving as part-time hearing officers for an obscure city agency.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake characterized the request by the Environmental Control Board, which handles health and sanitation citations, as an administrative mistake.

“There was some confusion because the hourly rate was extrapolated out as if they were full-time employees. . . and gives the impression there was a very large bump-up in salary,” she told reporters after the meeting.

She said the hearing officers would be paid substantially less than the $149,760 salary figures listed in the board agenda.

On April 29, the mayor and spending board had allocated a similar amount of funding for three ECB hearing officers.

That contract, requested two days after the Baltimore Riot, did not stir controversy because the salaries were computed for a six-month period.

They were displayed as costing the city $74,880 each, which is more in line with upper-level staff pay.

Since that time, the three officers were replaced by five new hearing officers.

B. Harriette Taylor, clerk for the Board of Estimates, said today’s proposed payouts were based on 32 hours of work a week by each of the officers.

Since the officers typically work 1 or 2 days a week, the figures presented to the board “didn’t make sense,” Taylor said.

She said the Expenditure Control Committee, headed by Comptroller Joan M. Pratt, had flagged the discrepancy earlier this month, but it was still on the board’s agenda until it was withdrawn at the opening of the session.

Attracting Qualified People

The high pay was justified as necessary “to attract and maintain qualified hearing officers,” according to a July 10 memo that was endorsed by Mary Talley, the city’s chief human capital officer.

Hearing officers at the Department of Public Works are paid $100 an hour, the environmental board argued – or $10 more than the hourly rate of its officers.

The officers act as administrative judges, hearing appeals by citizens and business owners given citations for trash, health, food, safety and sanitation violations by city inspectors.

The agency typically collects $6 million a year from violations.

The board’s executive director, Rebecca Woods, was reported out of the office and did not respond to an emailed request for comment by The Brew.

Lax Operations

Woods was appointed last November after the former director, Sandra E. Baker, was fired by the mayor.

Baker had been accused of abusing her office in a scathing report by Baltimore Inspector General Robert H. Pearre Jr.

Pearre documented how Baker rarely came to the office before noon, spent hours at the hairdresser and a spa, took out-of-town trips on city time, and billed extra hours by entering fraudulent time records in the city’s payroll system.

According to the report, Baker explained her absences to staff by saying that “as a mayoral appointee and a member of the Mayor’s Cabinet, she can come to the office as she pleases as a perk of the position.”

Pearre said he handed his findings over to the state’s attorney’s office, but it declined to prosecute.

The five new hearing officers appointed by Mayor Rawlings-Blake all maintain active law practices. They are:

• Kurt Natchtman and Jeremy Eldridge, criminal defense lawyers who are partners at EN Lawyers and former assistant city state’s attorneys.
• Joyce R. Lombardi, who practices environmental law at the Towson office of Peter G. Angelos.
• Belinda Matlock, listed as a lawyer in Frederick.
• James R. Hoffman, an Annapolis lawyer who specializes in toxic tort lawsuits.

The attorneys will work as Contract Services Specialists II and receive $90 an hour. The mayor’s spokesman, Howard S. Libit, said the attorneys were picked from an “open application and interview process.”

Asked specifically how she selected the hearing officers, the mayor said she received recommendations from Woods and other control board members, elected officials and “community stakeholders.”

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