A package of bills aimed to modernize the office of the Baltimore City Comptroller, including one that would require real estate records to be maintained on an online public database instead of a “well-bound leather book,” were introduced to the City Council Monday night on behalf of Comptroller Bill Henry.
“These bills are just the start of a sizable code reform effort I'll be pursuing over the next few months,” Henry said. “Legislative reform is essential for modernization.”
The Democrat, who unseated incumbent Comptroller Joan Pratt in last year’s primary, campaigned as an agent of change poised to bring transparency to the comptroller’s office, which Pratt held for over 25 years.
Previously, the Office of the Comptroller only drafted legislation relating to the Department of Real Estate, KC Kelleher, Henry’s director of communications, said.
One bill would repeal a portion of city code that requires a physical copy of real estate property records and replace it with a public database.
“Right now, the city code requires that the office maintain, and I'm quoting, ‘a well-bound leather book containing all of the property owned by the city,’ ” Henry said. “We would like to upgrade that to something that allows for an online, more transparent, more open and accessible way of maintaining that information.”
Henry said he was hopeful the proposed terminology will “stand the test of time.”
Another bill would repeal a piece of city code that says the Comptroller is the clerk of the city’s spending board and replaces it with a line that moves clerical duties to the Comptroller’s designee. Those duties include reading abstentions and bids at Board of Estimates meetings.
It also codifies ongoing procurement thresholds for expenditures over $50,000 and contracts over $25,000.
“We do expect to take a deeper look at these thresholds within the next year to make sure they’re as useful and transparent as possible,” Kelleher said.
A third bill aims to democratize and bolster oversight of Baltimore’s process of purchasing insurance, which covers everything from cyber attacks to healthcare plans for city employees.
Current city code requires the Comptroller to purchase the insurance package at the direction of the Insurance and Risk Management Committee. That committee is unstructured and only legally obligated from “time to time.” The bill would add the City Solicitor, the Mayor, the Comptroller, the Director of Finance and two city council appointees to the committee and require they meet at least biannually.
Another bill would add the Comptroller to the Fire and Police Employees’ Retirement System board.
Progressive councilmen Kristerfer Burnett, Zeke Cohen and Ryan Dorsey introduced a bill to call on Mayor Brandon Scott to invest at least $1 million of any future COVID-19 federal relief funds to establish an emergency fund to assist Baltimore City artists.
The bill was suggested by the Maryland Citizens for the Arts, Dorsey said.
“Artists have largely been left out of unemployment benefits because so many are self-employed,” Dorsey said. “And even when they do work additional jobs, often those jobs are part-time jobs or gigs that are inconsistent work.”
Members of the council do not have the authority to govern relief spending themselves.
The bill sponsors’ hope, Dorsey said, is to have a hearing in which artists can speak about their value to the community and the importance of designated relief.
“Without them, our city and our lives would not be the same,” he said.
An ambitious package of housing bills aimed at bolstering protections for renters with broad support throughout the council were withdrawn from the council’s docket so that legislators can modify them.
Councilwoman Odette Ramos also withdrew her bill to delay the city’s annual tax sale, after some members questioned whether the council had the legal authority to do so. Instead, she said, she will circulate a letter asking Mayor Scott to delay the sale.