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Baltimore’s Board of Ethics Could Get More Hands On Deck Under Proposed City Charter Amendment

AP/Patrick Semansky

The Baltimore City Board of Ethics’ plays a multifaceted role: it sets ethical standards for elected officials, keeps track of lobbyists and financial disclosures and is supposed to help guide City Hall employees away from unsavory influences.

But it’s also, according to many City Council members, woefully understaffed. The last time the Board of Ethics submitted an annual report, which demonstrates both an agency’s accomplishments and financial needs, was 2014. 

A newly proposed city charter amendment could boost the board’s staffing [that] by moving it under the purview of the city’s Office of the Inspector General. 

The piece of legislation is one of a package of charter amendments aiming to bolster transparency introduced by progressive council members last spring, after former mayor Catherine Pugh resigned after her self-dealing of children’s books was brought to light. The newly-minted Equity and Structure Committee, led by council members Kristerfer Burnett, Bill Henry and Danielle McCray will guide those amendments through legislation this year. 

The Board of Ethics currently sits under the Baltimore City Department of Legislative Reference. The OIG is completely independent from the city; Baltimoreans moved it out of the city’s purview in a ballot charter amendment supported by 84 percent of voters in 2018. 

Inspector General Isabel Mercedes Cumming testified in support of the amendment at a Thursday hearing and commended the Board of Ethics members for their work, calling it “incredibly time consuming… done it to the best of their abilities.”

“We do need additional persons to do this job well,” she said. “I will not allow my office to be setup for failure.” 

Linda “Lu” Pierson, the Chairman of the Baltimore City Ethics Board, also testified in favor of the amendment at a Thursday hearing. She agreed that additional personnel are needed and said the agency’s support of the amendment should not be interpreted as dissatisfaction with our current staff.  

“They've been extremely helpful in all our work for at least 10 years,” said Pierson, whose term expired in late 2018. The city has yet to identify someone to replace her. “However, we understand being the poor stepchild of [the Baltimore City Department of Legislative Reference], the hours they spend on our work is hours they are taking away from supporting the mayor and the city council in their legislative efforts.”

The amendment will need to pass another round of city hall legislation before the council can vote on it. If the council passes it, the amendment will be sent to Mayor Jack Young to be signed. 

City charter amendments must also be passed by voters. The soonest this change could appear on city ballots is November.

Emily Sullivan is a city hall reporter at WYPR, where she covers all things Baltimore politics. She joined WYPR after reporting for NPR’s national airwaves. There, she was a reporter for NPR’s news desk, business desk and presidential conflicts of interest team. Sullivan won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an investigation into a Trump golf course's finances alongside members of the Embedded team. She has also won awards from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for her use of sound and feature stories. She has provided news analysis on 1A, The Takeaway, Here & Now and All Things Considered.