A friend and mentor of mine told me many times over the years that our limitations are largely of our own making. He wrote a little book about that notion. It was called The Fox Condemns The Trap, Never Himself. (He lifted the title from the English poet, William Blake.)
The book was all about how not to create traps for yourself when doing the public’s business.
When I think about the City Council’s vote, expected today, on whether to put a charter amendment on the November ballot calling for mandatory biennial agency audits, I think about how we in government set traps for ourselves. It happens all the time. I do not exclude myself.
I sincerely hope the City Council passes the audits measure because its members want to know more about the city’s business and have the reasonable expectation that there will be a body of accurate information they can turn to for a precise answer.
I believe this because when city revenues and other fund sources begin to dry up, decisions that once seemed easy become very difficult indeed.
Unpaid Water Bills
The Big Pinch is on in City Hall. There are traps every place it seems. Sparrows Point is going down and the owners haven’t paid their city water bill for years. That’s $5 million down the drain, literally. We find out about extra work orders (EWOs) that can double the price of a city contract.
Three fire companies are set to be closed next week to save money. But by how much, nobody really knows since the Fire Department’s budget hasn’t been independently audited in years.
The cost of keeping recreation centers open is another deep, dark mystery. I can attest to the fact that the rec center issue is like an old lap dog – it comes around over and over, with no resolution except long-term neglect and decay.
Citizens advocating for the city’s youth are rallying in front of City Hall. A dispute between the mayor and city comptroller has flared up over the need for video telephones installed in City Hall – and the future of multi-million-dollar telecommunication networks.
Any citizen who has a bank account, pays down a car loan or sends money to a relative in need is flabbergasted to learn that our city, wittingly or unwittingly, has – for years – laid a very big trap for itself.
City Hall is largely clueless about how much money it has in hand, where that money is, how it is being spent and for what.
This is a trap of our own making.
The Council is beginning to realize they can’t lay every problem at the mayor’s feet (just as some are beginning to wonder if she has feet of clay). We have a CEO who does not want to give the appearance of having attempted to quash the audit requirement, even though she has declined to support it.
We might guess that Phonegate would not be such a full-bore battle between Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Comptroller Joan Pratt if both had a body of facts they could use to discuss the matter, rather giving us a very public fight.
And I would bet that City Council members do not want to get trapped in another event of the magnitude of the water bill mess.
Think of the hundreds of calls that came to their offices complaining about inaccurate and even made-up bills. Not only were there few facts about the extent of the city’s billing problems, but the data had to be found in, yes, an audit by the Comptroller’s office after the mess had dragged on for years.
Ending the “Helpless” Plea
Lastly, as the budget belt tightens, members of the Council are increasingly being challenged about their longstanding plea of helplessness: “We don’t have any power over the budget. We can only take things from the mayor’s budget. Not put the money back in, or reallocate resources.”
That shouldn’t be the case when the city’s fiscal landscape gets exposed in its entirety. Then the Council’s public hearings and budget questions can be based on facts.
At that magical moment, the mayor and her recommendations about how to spend the public’s money will be tested by real information from regular and professional audits.
At that moment, we can quit pointing fingers, accusing and demeaning ourselves, and begin talking in a civilized way about the future of our city.
Chris Delaporte was Baltimore’s Recreation and Parks Director in the 1980s under Mayor William Donald Schaefer, interim Chief of the Parks Bureau under Mayor Martin O’Malley and, most recently, a member of the Recreation and Parks Advisory Board. He is a co-founder of the Parks & People Foundation and serves as the city’s Park Advocate. He can be reached at email@example.com.