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Politicsby Fern Shen4:01 pmMar 22, 20210

A strained return to City Hall business after probe of Mosbys comes to light

Advocates for renters say a City Council bill to let renters pay security deposits over time – fast-tracked for final passage tonight – includes a “Trojan horse” provision that could hurt them

Above: Nick Mosby resides over the Baltimore City Council’s noon meeting. (Webex)

At today’s City Council pre-meeting, the first since news broke that Council President Nick Mosby and his wife, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, are under federal investigation, there was no mention of this startling development.

Mosby, in fact, was upbeat. “It gets me excited about the next three-plus years,” he said, lauding the Council’s first 100 days under his leadership.

“Let’s rock and roll for the citizens of Baltimore. Thank you – I love you, Baltimore!”

He spoke at the end of a meeting that was subdued except for tensions that briefly flared over a measure creating “security deposit alternatives” for renters.

Under Bill 21-0022, one of those alternatives is a monthly installment plan allowing renters to make payments over time.

But renters’ advocates and some Council members question the other alternative the measure offers, the use of “rental security insurance.”

Councilman Ryan Dorsey said that what the language refers to “is actually not insurance,” while advocates called the mechanism “a Trojan horse” that could hurt renters while benefiting a “predatory” national surety bond company.

Speaking at the midday virtual “luncheon,” with the Bill-0022 on the agenda for tonight’s meeting, Dorsey called for it to be held and returned to committee for another hearing. He complained that, at last week’s work session on the bill, Chairman Sharon Green Middleton had cut him off.

“I was extremely disappointed that I was denied the opportunity to even discuss and ask questions related to concerns with the bill,” he said.

Mosby wasn’t having it.

“I don’t believe it is the posture of the body to send it back,” Mosby told him.

Council member Zeke Cohen also objected, questioning why the bill is scheduled for double reading: meaning the rules will be suspended to allow both a preliminary and final vote on the same night.

Explaining the urgency, Mosby pointed out “we are in the midst of a pandemic.”

Advocates have promoted the bill, introduced by Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton, as a form of relief for renters struggling to come up with funds to move into housing.

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UPDATE: A motion by Dorsey to move the bill back to committee failed tonight, as did a subsequent motion to strike all references to “rental insurance” from the bill.

Middleton defended her conduct of the previous hearing (“I follow Robert’s Rules of Order. I checked with the parliamentarian, there were no mistakes,” she said), but later moved to drop the bill from a “double hearing.” It received preliminary Second Reader approval.

Venture Capital-backed Firm

Elected officials steered clear of the topic of the federal probe that surfaced on Friday, with confirmation that the Mosbys and others have been served with subpoenas seeking financial, campaign, tax and other documents.

Council members said public comment on the matter would be premature. Pressed for a response, a spokesperson for Mayor Brandon Scott promised his statement on the matter will be forthcoming soon.

It eventually came in this statement by Scott’s new communications director, Cal Harris: “The mayor is aware of the pending investigation, but is rightfully focusing his energy on addressing the urgent challenges facing Baltimoreans.”

“The mayor is aware of the [Mosby] investigation, but is rightfully focusing his energy on addressing the urgent challenges facing Baltimoreans” – statement by Mayor Scott’s office.

Members of the coalition group Baltimore Renters United, meanwhile, were pressing for something with less media appeal – halting the progress of a “rental security insurance” bill that seemed fast-tracked for passage.

“The word ‘insurance’ is deceptive,” three tenants’ rights groups said. “It is a word most understand, but the products available are surety bonds, which are complex three-way contracts that are inexpensive to buy, but often very expensive to escape.”

The statement came from Tisha Guthrie, of the Bolton House Residents Association; Jane Santoni, partner with Baltimore consumer rights law firm Santoni, Vocci, and Ortega; and Marceline White, executive director of the Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition.

Dorsey said the measure is part of a national trend of renters’ choice bills “designed to benefit pretty much one company, Rhino,” a venture capital-backed startup founded in 2017 that sells security deposit insurance.

Advocates are concerned that tenants who agree to use this national company give up rights to dispute claims that would otherwise protect them, said Molly Amster, of Jews United for Justice.

“These private bond companies do not have a track record of transparency and accountability,” Amster said, speaking for the Renters United coalition. “This is a complicated issue that needs more discussion.”

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