Remembering a legal wordsmith who drew inspiration from Don Quixote
Avery Aisenstark fought valiantly for the rule of law in Baltimore during his long career as City Hall’s bill drafter
Above: Avery Aisenstark addressing a City Council budget hearing in 2018. (Fern Shen)
“Too much sanity may be madness – and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be,” Cervantes wrote in his masterwork about Don Quixote, a man who tilted at windmills.
Last week Baltimore lost a man who kept City Hall reasonably sane, legally speaking, across a quarter century and through seven administrations.
Before he retired last June, Avery Aisenstark was director of the Office of Legislative Reference for 26 years. He passed away on April 19 at age 77.
Officially, Aistenstark’s job was to provide legal review and technical advice to the City Council and the mayor’s office.
That required advising lawmakers on proper bill drafting. It meant nursing mayoral ideas into constitutionally sound legislation. It involved untangling legal wording beset by inconsistencies and compromises.
His office also oversaw revisions to the city code and framed the charter amendments that went before voters on the ballot.
“Avery was a superb draftsman and wordsmith,” says Ros Fraser, a member of his small staff. “Thanks to his efforts, the Baltimore City Code is a model that local governments throughout Maryland and elsewhere emulate.”
“I valued his advice. If he gave you his opinion on a legal matter, you could be sure it was his best effort, free from spin or bias,” adds David A. Plymyer, the former attorney for Anne Arundel County and a Brew contributor.
Both recalled Aisenstark as a “larger-than-life” figure whose respect for the rule of law and deep institutional knowledge was masked by droll humor and a crotchety veneer.
Here was someone who spouted Yiddish sayings with perfect deadpan timing, titled his self-published book on bill drafting “To Blithely Split an Infinitive (or Not),” and collected artwork, rare books and cheap tchotchkes related to Don Quixote.
His homage to the man from La Mancha and his sidekick Sancho Panza covered the walls of his high-ceiling office on the sixth floor of City Hall.
That was until the day a city functionary, in a plot twist worthy of Cervantes, demanded that everything be removed for an office renovation that never happened.
Battling Bad Legislation
Aisenstark’s unofficial role at the seat of Baltimore government was to rally against the follies and self-interested antics of local lawmakers.
His efforts were typically undertaken quietly, behind the scenes. But sometimes the curtains parted.
For example, when 11th District Councilman Eric Costello tried to slip an amendment into a bill that would potentially expand the definition of “lobbyist” to local citizens and community groups, Aisenstark took a public stand.
“This essentially wipes out the grassroots groups,” he chided Costello. “This reaches into a First Amendment issue [and] needs to be vetted by the Ethics Board.”
After Aisenstark continued to object at a public hearing, “Costello abruptly withdrew the amendment to gasps from some in the audience,” The Brew reported at the time.
Another dispute took place in 2018 when Mayor Catherine Pugh teamed up with Council President Jack Young to place Legislative Reference under their thumb.
Legislative Reference was set up in 1906 as an independent body, governed by an oversight board that including the deans of the University of Maryland and University of Baltimore law schools and the president of Johns Hopkins University.
Pugh and Young wanted to put the office under a committee consisting of themselves – and to strip Aisenstark of his civil service protections.
• A legal scholar caught in the quicksand of a City Hall power grab (10/26/18)
Young’s allies maneuvered to place the measure on the 2018 ballot without Aisenstark’s knowledge. After letting Steve Sachs and others point out the dangers of a compromised office, Aisenstark lost patience when a Young staffer declared that he favored the ballot issue.
He came out swinging. “I didn’t want to make this issue personal,” he told The Brew, “because it’s institutional,” noting that the mayor was a member of the current board and could convene a meeting at any time to evaluate his work.
“Independence and accountability are at stake,” he said.
Question K was approved, and Avery’s battle seemingly was lost.
But instead of resigning, he soldiered on.
Six months later, it was Pugh who was gone under the ethical cloud of her own self-published (and richly remunerative) “Healthy Holly” books, and Young, elevated to mayor, had more pressing concerns.
Avery’s biggest battle soon became age, exacerbated by the pandemic.
Reluctantly, he retired last summer from the job he loved when he knew he could no longer meet his own exacting standards.
To those who knew him, the words of Ros Fraser ring true: “His sense of humor, endless supply of knowledge, mentorship and massive Don Quixote collection will be greatly missed.”
His family asks that contributions in his memory (no flowers) be sent to Jewish Family Services, 5750 Park Heights Avenue, Baltimore, MD 21215.