Controlling three of the five seats on the Board of Estimates, the mayor holds the cards over hundred of millions of dollars in city spending.
Long criticized, the near supreme power of the purse granted to the city’s chief executive is again under fire after Wednesday’s BOE vote in favor of Mayor Brandon Scott’s controversial BGE conduit agreement.
The conduit vote – which Scott called despite two members of the board boycotting the meeting in protest – has prompted Councilman Zeke Cohen to call for the BOE to be either restructured or scrapped.
“The debacle over the BGE conduit deal is a brutal indictment of our strong mayor system of government,” Cohen said in a statement released yesterday.
“We must respond by democratizing the Board of Estimates to make it more accountable to our residents. Or we could just abolish it,” said Cohen, who represents southeast’s First District.
The propriety of the vote by Scott and his two appointees – held while the seats for Comptroller Bill Henry and City Council President Nick Mosby were empty – is now under scrutiny by the Maryland Attorney General.
Cohen’s legislation will propose a task force composed of non-elected Baltimoreans to “explore best practices and listen to city residents.”
Scott Questioned the Structure
The task force Cohen is proposing has prior work to build on:
Recommendations of a City Council committee created by Brandon Scott during his tenure as Council President.
Back then, he criticized the same BOE structure that he relied on Wednesday to ensure that the contract he favored was approved.
Cohen pointed to Scott’s 2020 statement calling for the BOE to undergo a major overhaul.
“A former Council President once wisely warned us of this bad outcome while leading the fight to democratize the Board of Estimates,” Cohen said. “That Council President was Brandon Scott.”
“He was right,” Cohen observed, underlining the point in a series of tweets. “Key decision about city finances should never be controlled by a single elected official.”
In The Brew series The Imperial Mayor, which examined the history of Baltimore’s strong mayor governance, reporter Joan Jacobson explained its structure:
The city’s charter establishing the Board of Estimates gives the mayor control of three out of five votes.
The mayor’s two appointees – the City Solicitor and Director of Public Works – vote with their boss.
The Council President and the Comptroller, both independently elected, have the two other votes.
In 2020, the presumptive next mayor vowed to pass a bill seeking a charter referendum to reconfigure the board and give the mayor less power.
Even after the bill stalled, Scott said he was committed to changing the BOE.
”My word is my word” – Brandon Scott in 2020.
“My word is my word,” he told Jacobson, pledging to get a bill approved before he left the City Council in December 2020 to be sworn in as mayor.
That never happened.
READ THE FULL SERIES:
• Part 1: Baltimore’s strong-mayor system comes under question (10/5/20)
• Part 2: Transparency? Checks and balances? Those are for losers! (10/6/20)
• Part 3: When ward bosses reigned and the Board of Estimates was born (10/7/20)