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What a day.

But we’ve got to keep focused on the real issues, even while the FBI and IRS raid our City Hall, Mayor Pugh’s two homes, and her treasurer’s office.

(Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

(Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

The real issue is our money

How it gets spent, and who is accountable for doing it right.

Here is a chart of our money – almost seven hundred million dollars in projects we need done right to make the city work, just in the current fiscal year. 

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All this money gets funneled through a broken system – the one that allowed Mayor Pugh to vote on millions in contracts awarded to companies that were paying her without us knowing about it.

The money is controlled by the Board of Estimates.

This Board is run by the three most powerful elected officials in City Hall, where big contracts are awarded in public meetings after all the important conversations have already happened behind closed doors.

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If you need a primer on this system, watch this video – where a former mayor describes how it works, then gets questioned on it by a local reporter, who then questions a current Councilman, who himself explains the secret conversations that go on between the Mayor, Comptroller, and Council President at the BOE.

Here’s the thing. Under this system, while it was wrong for the people awarded contracts to funnel money to Healthy Holly LLC, but it wasn’t against the rules for them to make donations to the Committee to Re-Elect Catherine E. Pugh before her vote on their contract.

It was wrong for the winner of a major public works contract to funnel $114,000 to Healthy Holly LLC, but it wasn’t against the rules for him to donate $29,000 to the mayor’s campaign – or, seven thousand dollars over the years to the Council President, or ten thousand to the Comptroller.

Let’s think about this for a minute. Is there really any justification for letting elected officials vote on contracts that are bid on, awarded to, and lobbied for by their campaign contributors?

It doesn’t have to be this way. 

Here’s a list of growing cities, plus some others worth watching. Not one of them handles public contracting with a Board of Estimates. Maybe there’s a good reason for that.

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The BOE structure creates the risk of corruption, but it also doesn’t make any sense.

What project delivery expertise do the Mayor, Comptroller, and Council President bring to the table? What, other than politics, do they add to the contract award process? 

The BOE awards not only public works contracts, but also IT and other service contracts – $48 million to another Healthy Holly “donor” for health care services, $2.6 million spent to upgrade the 311 system, $5 million to overhaul city government’s phone system.

Many have complained about the new 311. And City Hall telephones still don’t have call-waiting. Maybe we shouldn’t wonder why.

It’s time for a reinvention.

Nothing short of a total reinvention of how City Hall does business can remove the stain of yesterday’s events.

Other cities have done it, and we can too. Just look at this document. I know, it’s long and boring. But it’s another city’s unified vision for building roads and schools and parks and getting things done. It shows how a city that once had a Board of Estimates like we do, with project delivery dispersed across too many bureaucracies just like we have it now, created a world-class system.

On Monday, the City Council will introduce some Charter changes inspired by recent events, but we need far more sweeping change. Maybe it’s a good idea to lower the number of votes to override a mayoral veto, or to give the Council more say in the budget process. But this is just tinkering with a totally failed system.

It does seem that we need a way to remove a mayor, but letting the City Council do so with a three-fourths vote would be a momentous change, and it needs to be considered carefully.

We are facing a great crisis of accountability. The solution, still in need of a champion, is a reinvention as ambitious as this crisis runs deep. That’s a solution I don’t think City Hall can come up with all by itself. 

—Dan