Baltimore Councilwoman Odette Ramos is proposing to greatly reduce the power of elected officials over the city’s Office of the Inspector General amid charges that the current IG Advisory Board has built-in conflicts of interest.
Ramos is seeking to put on the November ballot an amendment to the City Charter that specifically bars elected officials or their designees from sitting on the oversight board. It also bars any state or city employee, lobbyist or anyone doing business with the city from sitting on the board.
She is introducing a resolution at tonight’s City Council meeting that will start the process of getting the initiative on the ballot, which would require Council approval.
“We want to make sure we’re preserving the integrity of the office of the Inspector General,” she told The Brew.
Under its current structure, the seven-member IG Advisory Board is dominated by members who either are – or represent – elected officials that may be subject to investigations.
The board now consists of one designee of the mayor, two designees of the City Council president, one designee of the comptroller, and the deans of the University of Maryland and University of Baltimore schools of law.
The panel is chaired by the city solicitor, who is appointed by the mayor.
“It’s been clear for a while that a change definitely is needed,” she said today.
Charged with rooting out waste, fraud and abuse in Baltimore government, the office became a political flashpoint last year after IG Isabel Mercedes Cumming produced a report critical of State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, wife of City Council President Nick Mosby.
At a Council budget hearing and an advisory oversight meeting, Nick Mosby’s designees on the board, along with City Solicitor Jim Shea, were critical of Cumming, questioning her job performance and budget requests.
Cumming, meanwhile, has called for the city to correct the “flaw” in the advisory board’s composition, saying it must be freed from political influence or the appearance of influence.
“The public should never wonder if a report is biased or is fully accurate because the subject of an investigation sits on or is influenced by a member of this board,” she said, addressing the advisory board last August.
“No citizen of Baltimore should be concerned whether a future inspector general has the fortitude to stand up to, or investigate, their own board,” she added.
Speaking with The Brew today, Cumming applauded the introduction of the measure, but appeared to acknowledge that it might face a challenge in a City Council that is headed by Nick Mosby.
“It’s brilliant. I admire Councilwoman Ramos for putting in such an innovative bill,” Cumming said. “I do hope it is brought forth from committee. And if not, that citizens get 10,000 signatures in order to put it on the ballot.”
Unusual Selection Process
Under the structure Ramos is proposing, five seats on the panel would be people nominated by City Council members, and two seats would be named by the chair of the city Board of Ethics.
Ramos suggests an unusual selection process to come up with the five: each Council member would nominate one person from their district who fits the criteria outlined in the charter amendment, with each nominee iplaced in one of the following groups:
• Group 1 – Council Districts 1, 2 and 3
• Group 2 – Council Districts 4, 5 and 6
• Group 3 – Council Districts 7, 8 and 9
• Group 4 – Council Districts 10, 11 and 12
• Group 5 – Council Districts 13 and 14
The ethics board chair would randomly select – “like from a hat,” Ramos says – one nominee from each group.
The remaining two members would be selected – likewise, at random – by the ethics board chair from names submitted by the Baltimore City Bar Association, Association of Fraud Examiners, Association of Certified Public Accountants according to criteria outlined in the charter amendment.
Ramos Claps Back
Addressing the Council at today’s pre-meeting luncheon, Ramos said the change would bring Baltimore more “in line with national best practices” for inspectors general.
Many major cities and jurisdictions (among them, Philadelphia, Chicago, Miami-Dade County and the state of New York) do not have oversight committees for their inspectors general.
Of the half-dozen that do have such panels, Ramos said, she knew of only two that have elected officials sitting on them – Baltimore and Albuquerque.
While Ramos was circumspect at the noon meeting, stressing that change would eliminate “the appearance” of impropriety, a press release announcing her charter change measure had more of an edge.
“Ramos claps back,” it began.
This was a reference to the April 26 Council meeting in which the CEO of a Boston-based nonprofit flooded the Council chambers with a raucous group of protesters, many from out of the city, and proceeded to insult the integrity of both Ramos and Mayor Brandon Scott.
The leader of the group, an unregistered lobbyist brought in by Council President Mosby to support his stalled Dollar Houses bill, accused Ramos of “doing the bidding for the real estate community.”
Ramos told The Brew she was impelled by “things that happened on April 26th” to consider moving ahead with the charter change proposal, which she had been contemplating for some time.
Upon last Thursday’s release of a report by the ethics board finding that Mosby violated ethics rules on gift solicitations, Ramos said she knew the moment had come.
“Obviously, with what happened last week, this is timely,” she said.
The resolution requires approval by the Council and the signature of the mayor before it can be put before the voters in the November election.
A spokesman for Mayor Brandon Scott, asked to comment on the charter proposal, has not yet replied.
The charter amendment resolution, 22-0238, goes next to the Council’s Rules and Oversight Committee, chaired by Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer.
Among those serving on that committee are Councilman Eric Costello and Council Vice President Sharon Green Middleton, Mosby allies who are his designees on the Inspector General Advisory Board.
Co-sponsoring Ramos’ measure: Council members Phylicia Porter, Zeke Cohen and Mark Conway.