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Mosby’s ARPA oversight bill heads to council for full vote

Emily Sullivan/WYPR
Baltimore City Hall. On Tuesday, a city council committee approved a bill to make the Scott administration provide the council with monthly ARPA spending reports.

A bill from City Council President Nick Mosby that would mandate monthly reports on federal relief money spending advanced out of the Ways and Means Committee Tuesday.

As in the standard budgeting process, Mayor Brandon Scott determines all aspects of ARPA spending. He chooses what to fund; those expenditures must be approved by the mayor-controlled Board of Estimates. The bill aims to bolster City Council oversight of $641 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding.

Scott invited city agencies and nonprofits to apply for the money. Over the summer, the Democrat created the 10-person Office of Recovery Programs to vet those applications, which measure a proposal’s equity impact, cost and risk, among other factors.

He has announced two primary spending initiatives: $50 million for violence prevention programming and$80 million for the health department to fight COVID-19; both agencies applied through the Office of Recovery Programs. Another roughly $110 million has been set aside for potential budget deficits tied to the pandemic.

Mosby introduced the legislation last month, after the Scott administration agreed to give the City Council quarterly ARPA reports. The council president’s bill calls for monthly, quarterly and annual reporting.

“After the 2015 unrest, after the killing of Freddie Gray, a tremendous amount of money came into the city,” Mosby said in an interview. “But it's hard for us to point and gather one, two or three things that came out of...a tremendous amount of money thrown at particular problems.”

The stakes are too high to allow that to happen again, the Democrat said. He described his legislation not as a way to hammer down on the Scott administration’s funding choices but as a way to elicit decision-making details and insight into expected programming outcomes. Mosby pointed to the ARPA allocation to the health department, which included funding to hire 120 contact tracers.

“Why wasn't it 121? Where are these numbers coming from, where’s the math? Are we going to be able, based off of having those contract tracers, prevent ‘X’ amount of deaths?” he asked. “This isn’t saying, ‘The administration is doing a bad job.’ This is just an action by the council of doing its job and one of its core competencies as a council is to provide oversight. And you can't provide oversight without necessary information.”

Senior Scott administration officials objected to the bill’s monthly reporting requirement at Tuesday’s hearing. Budget Director Bob Cenname, a chief advisor to the Office of Recovery Programs, said that monthly reports would fail to provide substantive insight.

“Our perspective is that monthly is just too frequent,” Cenname said, adding that such data would likely change drastically from week-to-week and would not be meaningful.

He noted that the federal Treasury, which monitors ARPA spending to ensure money is not diverted to ineligible projects, requires quarterly reports — not monthly reports.

“The reporting and compliance is a lot of work. It's a lot of staff time to do that,” Cenname said. “We're just asking the council to be smart and respectful about what information they need... so that we can provide the information that will help folks on the council understand and make the best possible decisions.”

The Ways and Means Committee members’ responses to the Scott administration’s testimonies were mixed.

“I was kind of in shock by that answer,” Council Vice President Sharon Green Middleton said to Cenname.

“We as a council, we're responsible for oversight of just about all the agencies, and this ARPA money is a once in a lifetime experience for all of us,” she said. “That just shows me that the monthly reporting needs to happen.”

Other members noted the absence of the leaders of the Office of Recovery Programs, who were attending a press conference where Scott announced $50 million in ARPA funds for violence prevention efforts, which was scheduled at the same time as the hearing.

“I had a few questions, but the office that I would like to speak to is not here,” Councilwoman Danielle McCray said. “We have all decided to show up on this committee, but I can't ask my questions because they're not here.”

Councilman Kristerfer Burnett said he was concerned that the hearing may have breached the Open Meetings Act. The mayor’s office sent out a news release announcing the press conference shortly after 6:00 p.m. Monday; the committee hearing was announced to council members less than half an hour later.

City attorney Elena DiPietro said the act requires lawmakers “to give the public the best possible notice that they could do in the circumstance.”

Ultimately, the committee passed the bill by a 5-1 vote. Burnett abstained, citing the lack of input from the Office of Recovery Programs.

“We've delayed scheduling of hearings until we have agency reports so that we could be as deliberative as possible when considering the legislative process,” he said. “So while I do support the intent, because of the lack of information before us, I'm going to be abstaining.”

Councilman Ryan Dorsey cast the sole vote against the bill, saying he wished that the committee had more time to discuss the bill but noting that he backs the bill’s oversight aims.

“Transparency is of the utmost importance,” he said. “But it is important that we get it right the first time and I just do not believe that this gets it right the first time.”

The oversight bill will go before the entire City Council for a final vote at its next meeting.

Scott’s spokesman Cal Harris said the mayor’s tenets include transparency, accountability and equity and that quarterly reports would provide a more detailed, holistic account of ARPA spending than monthly reports.

“Efficiency, effectiveness and equity as cited in the legislation cannot be quantified monthly,” he told WYPR. “The mayor supports the oversight outlined in City Council Bill 21-0121 and agreed to quarterly briefing dates well before the bill and resolution were introduced.”

Council President Mosby pushed back, noting that the administrations set aside $10 million in ARPA money to fund the Office of Recovery Programs over the next few years.

“We think that they should have the capacity of reporting out and being transparent to not only the council, but the citizens of Baltimore, on a monthly basis about exactly where the money's going and what we expect the outcome to be associated with that money,” he said.

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.