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Mobtown Beat

Audit? I Hardly Know It!

City Council goes forward with watered-down bill

After yet another contentious and confusing series of votes, the City Council passed a watered-down bill requiring audits of each of the 14 largest city departments and agencies at least once every four years—starting in 2014.

The weaker bill, shaped by a late series of amendments offered by Councilman Robert Curran (3rd district), was pre-approved by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s administration, Curran says: “Any legislation I do, I first go to the administration to see if they’re going to be all right with it.”

Curran denies that the amendments came from an envelope mayoral aid Andrew Smullian handed him just before the meeting, as the Baltimore Brew reported. “They came from me,” Curran insists. “M-E.”

Curran said he originally penned his amendments the week previous, but did not submit them to the council committee that was working on a compromise for the bill because he knew they would not be adopted there. He says his initial start date for the audits was 2016, not the 2014 that ended up in the bill. The administration asked him to change that, he says.

The mayor continues to claim that the city doesn’t need new audits, but for Comptroller Joan Pratt—with whom the mayor has been feuding with over a number of issues—to conduct proper audits is part of her job.

Asked the Friday before Curran’s ambush amendments why she’s not supporting a charter change to compel more audits, Rawlings-Blake frowned. “Why would it take a charter amendment for the comptroller to do her job?” the mayor snapped at a police department community-night event at the Western District headquarters. “Do I need a charter amendment to do my job?”

At the July 16 council meeting, chaos once again reigned as carefully calibrated compromise amendments—they would have required audits of the 14 major departments every two years, instead of the original bill’s requirement of semiannual audits of all 55 the city’s departments, boards, and commissions—were shot down in a 6-6 vote. (Rikki Spector, of the 5th district, who later said she supported the audit bill, was absent, as were Sharon Green Middleton, of the 8th district, and Helen Holton, of the 6th district.)

Curran then introduced nine new amendments he had handed to fellow council members just before the start of the meeting. Councilman Bill Henry (4th District) tried to table them but failed. The vote was called, but Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke (14th District) managed to sever one of the amendments—which would have foregone financial audits and required only performance audits. (Performance audits examine whether an organization is fulfilling its mission most efficiently; financial audits check all the figures, count the cash, and weigh any financial predictions and assumptions against generally accepted standards.) That amendment was defeated, 6-6, then the remaining eight amendments were passed by a split vote, with council members giving speeches explaining their votes.

The Nos—Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, Henry, Councilman Carl Stokes (12th District) and Councilman Warren Branch (13th District)—said they opposed the bill now because it is too weak: “These should be done every year,” Young said. “Anything less than that is disrespectful to the voters.” The Yeses said they favored the bill because it’s the best they can do.

“We may not get the toughest bill that we wanted through,” Curran said at the meeting, “but we will no longer have three decades without audits. This will be one of the strongest [audit requirements] in the state of Maryland, in all the subdivisions.”

Asked later what research he conducted to determine how tough other towns’ auditing standards are, Curran said he had not done any.

Curran emphasized his experience with audits. Several years ago, he asked for an audit of a drug provider called Express Scripts, and the city ended up with a $240,000 settlement from that company (28 state attorneys general sued). In 2009, he asked the city’s audit division to investigate parking lot tax revenues. He says he is still awaiting the results of that audit, and that this experience made him reluctant to pass a bill requiring more frequent audits.

“How can we have those expectations when I can’t get the parking lot audit that [should find] millions of dollars are being lost?” Curran asked. “I have a background, so you gotta give me a little credit. I went to four years because I thought it would be more reasonable.”

The auditors of several cities have told City Paper that audits are ordinarily done according to a risk assessment and not on any set schedule. But Mary Ernish, a Southwest resident who has emerged as an activist on the audit issue, says she contacted audit authorities in the 26 largest U.S. cities and found that Baltimore’s audit efforts lag far behind all of the others.

“Baltimore is the only city out of the 26 largest cities in the United States whose charter does not specify . . . time-specific audits, mandates an audit committee, or an annual audit plan,” Ernish wrote in an email to Stokes, the bill’s original sponsor, on July 12. “We are the only city that does not do any of these things.”

The bill that would change this now goes to the council one more time for final passage. If it passes on Aug. 13, it will be placed on the ballot as a charter amendment for the voters to decide.

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