Baltimore’s spending board voted Wednesday to limit the ability of members to delay items scheduled for a vote, a change City Council President Nick Mosby decried as an unnecessary “power grab” that benefits Mayor Brandon Scott because he controls a majority of the panel.

Previously, any of the five Board of Estimates members could ask to delay an item, also known as a deferral, for up to four meetings if they believe there isn’t enough information to make a fair decision. And members can decide to delay an item at any time before the vote — which often happened once Board of Estimates members started asking questions.

But the new rules, proposed by the mayor’s law department, would require members to ask for a delay at the beginning of the meeting and would require a majority vote to defer an item once the meeting begins. And board members could only delay items for two meetings or a maximum or four weeks, whichever comes first.

The new rules amount to a restriction on one of few tools available to the two board members not appointed by the mayor: Mosby and Comptroller Bill Henry. They also would have made impossible a recent procedural move by Mosby to kneecap an administration request related to the future of Baltimore’s city-owned conduit system.

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Mosby said he had “grave concerns” about the change’s implications for the transparency and accountability of board decisions. The council president warned about the long-term implications beyond this administration and talked in particular about the importance of being able to defer spending decisions if a protester or community input during discussion raises new issues.

It “just seems overkill,” said Mosby. “It does not seem to be related to transparency or accountability.”

The board approved Wednesday’s measure 4-1, with Mosby dissenting.

In addition to Scott, Mosby and Henry, the Board of Estimates consists of two of the mayor’s appointees, Department of Public Works Director Jason Mitchell and Interim City Solicitor Ebony Thompson — comprising a three-vote majority for the administration. Scott was attending the Maryland governor’s inauguration in Annapolis on Wednesday and was represented at the meeting by Deputy City Administrator Simone Johnson.

In a statement, Scott’s office said the mayor is committed to the board’s transparency and noted the changes don’t take away a member’s right to defer decisions. But the administration also needs to ensure “timely execution” of city business, the office said, and the previous allowance for two month delays had the potential to hinder core services.

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While Mosby and Henry face an almost impossible battle on the Board of Estimates if they disagree with the mayor, they have sometimes managed to hamstring action on spending items by deferring them beyond a deadline or allowing more time for public input on potentially controversial decisions.

The power of deferral was on display at a Board of Estimates meeting last October, when Scott’s administration sought approval of a consulting agreement on possible uses for the city’s underground communications network, known as the conduit. The request came a little more than a month before Election Day, when Baltimore residents were set to vote on whether to ban the privatization of the 700-mile underground network of wires for phone, electric and internet services — timing that raised concerns for Henry and Mosby, who deferred a decision until after the election.

That deferral would not have been possible under the new rules, since it happened after discussion of the contract proposal and the new maximum delay period would have landed the conduit decision on the Board of Estimates agenda the week before the election.

The consulting agreement on the conduit ultimately passed the board after the election.

Deputy Solicitor Stephen Salsbury said the intent of the rule change is to avoid unnecessarily prolonging city business and to “improve efficiency without curtailing transparency.” When the deferral rules were written in 2021, the board was meeting weekly, meaning that deferring an item for four meetings would amount to a monthlong delay, rather than two months under the current schedule.

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Thompson added that the right to defer mid-meeting remains in place as long as the majority of the board agrees. Any mayor — whether Scott or future executives — who wants to “bulldoze” through decisions without seeking out additional important information “would be held accountable,” the interim solicitor said.

Henry, meanwhile, expressed sympathy with Mosby’s concerns but said he thinks the mayor has shown a willingness to postpone decisions when more information is needed. The comptroller voted for the rule change and said if the mayor doesn’t uphold that standard, “then that’s going to be something that the people of Baltimore are going to be making the call on.”

Adam Willis covers city government for The Banner, including the impacts of the large COVID-19 stimulus package that Baltimore received from the federal government. 

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