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Commentaryby David A. Plymyer8:35 amAug 31, 20210

Inspector General oversight fight is a watershed moment for this city

If the advisory board succeeds in weakening our only effective watchdog, it will send a terrible message to city agencies and to government employees. [OP-ED]

Above: Bus bench on West Cold Spring Lane. (Mark Reutter)

Last week’s meeting of Baltimore’s Inspector General Advisory Board was ominous. It confirmed my worst fears about the ulterior motives of several board members.

Any actions taken by the board over the next few months to weaken the Office of Inspector General (OIG) would have a profoundly negative impact on the future of the city.

Residents and others interested in the well-being of Baltimore must make themselves heard before it is too late.

It is not hyperbole to describe the effort to undercut the OIG’s independence through intrusive “oversight” by a highly political board as a watershed moment.

Hearing dominated by board’s concern about whether IG investigations could threaten them or their allies (8/26/21)

City agencies are failing under the combined weight of incompetence, waste and corruption – and city services are deteriorating accordingly.

Watching and listening to last Wednesday’s board meeting, however, the casual observer would have concluded that the most serious problem facing Baltimore is the possibility that an investigation by the IG might embarrass a city politician or one of his or her cronies.

Powerful Enemies

By contrast, the opening statement by IG Isabel Mercedes Cumming offered a compelling argument about her office’s mission and the current challenge to its independence.

FULL TEXT of Cumming’s opening statement.

Let’s not be naive. There are people inside and outside of government thriving on that incompetence, waste and corruption. City officials have friends, family members, political allies and donors who directly benefit from it.

Things will get worse if the anti-IG forces prevail, and city agencies will never get fixed.

It is no secret that IG Cumming has made some powerful political enemies, including City Council President Nick Mosby and his wife, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, whose lawyers have publicly and personally denounced the IG for not writing the exculpatory report about Mosby’s out-of-town travels that the state’s attorney fully expected.

Those enemies have allies on the advisory board, and it was clear from the meeting that they intend to control its agenda.

The meeting was a veritable journey down the rabbit hole to the dysfunctional world of Baltimore politics.

The meeting was a surreal experience. A veritable journey down the rabbit hole to the dysfunctional world of Baltimore politics.

Much of the substance of the meeting had to do with the desire by some members of the board to put themselves in positions to influence the outcome of individual investigations. That just cannot happen.

James L. Shea, the city solicitor who serves as Mayor Brandon Scott's direct appointee to the board, spent a full hour peppering IG Cumming with questions last week. (CharmTV)

James L. Shea, the city solicitor who serves as Mayor Brandon Scott’s  appointee and is chairman of the advisory board, spent an hour peppering Cumming with questions. (CharmTV)

Even the general tenor of the meeting was disconcerting.

It had the feel of a subordinate being called on the carpet by her superiors. The tone was unprofessional and inappropriate, designed to place Cumming on the defensive.

Strikingly, there was no acknowledgement by board members of her accomplishments. That omission reflected their complete lack of enthusiasm for the OIG’s mission. The seven board members simply could not bring themselves to praise Cumming in any manner. What kind of behavior is that?

Contrast to County

The most troubling takeaway from the meeting, however, was the apparent lack of concern about conveying the impression that the board viewed the OIG more as a liability than an asset. My take is that board members are simply not worried about the political consequences of their attack on the office’s independence.

Their indifference to public perception contrasts with the calculation made in Baltimore County after residents reacted angrily to a bill proposed by County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., that would have gutted the office of county IG Kelly Madigan.

Worried about the damage to his reputation with voters, Olszewski beat a hasty retreat and withdrew the bill.

The practical consequences of undermining the independence of the OIG and reducing its effectiveness are becoming more apparent each year. During the fiscal year that ended on June 30, the office identified over $7 million lost to fraud, waste or abuse.

There also are important intangible consequences.

If the board succeeds in weakening the OIG, those elements within the city that favor the status quo will be emboldened by their victory over advocates of accountability and reform. It will send a terrible message to city employees.

It will take vigilance by voters to protect the good government agency that they created.

In 2018, city voters wisely made the OIG independent of both the executive and legislative branches by charter amendment, understanding it was the only way the agency would be able to put a dent in the double dipping, gross inefficiency and questionable perks that plague city government.

It was inevitable that some officials heavily invested in business-as-usual in the city would seek to undo that independence.

It will take vigilance by voters to protect the good government agency that they created. That vigilance includes telling members of the IG Advisory Board to back off attempts to defang the city’s only effective watchdog.

• David A. Plymyer retired as Anne Arundel County Attorney in 2014 after 31 years in the county law office. He can be reached at dplymyer@comcast.net and Twitter @dplymyer.

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