Baltimore clarifies rules to govern Board of Estimates votes, abstentions

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Baltimore’s Board of Ethics has clarified the voting rules for the city spending panel, finding that a member may in fact vote on matters pertaining to units of city government under his or her control.

In a written opinion issued Thursday, the Board of Ethics concluded that a 2013 change to city law limits instances in which members of the Board of Estimates must abstain from voting because of a conflict of interest.

“The Ethics Law itself does not require a BOE member to abstain from voting on all matters concerning a unit of City government under the member’s control,” according to the opinion. “However, the BOE is free to adopt additional voting abstention policies to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest.”

The opinion comes after a new five-member Board of Estimates was seated in December. In the first move by the new board, Democratic Comptroller Bill Henry introduced a change to the rules, in a memo that’s published online, requiring members to state their reason for abstaining from a vote.

The change came after Baltimore’s inspector general revealed last March then-Democratic Comptroller Joan Pratt voted 30 times in three years to approve $48 million worth of contracts, grants and other spending to organizations on her self-defined abstention list. The report also highlighted a pattern in Pratt’s office of adding and then removing organizations from her list.

Pratt defended her votes, saying the groups named in the inspector general’s report were organizations she had relationships with “many years prior” or ones where she had dealt with an individual who was part of the organization, rather than dealing the group as a whole.

Typically, members of the Board of Estimates have maintained individual “abstention lists” with the names of people and businesses with which they are affiliated in some way. The ethics law requires members to abstain from voting when they or their spouse, parent, child or sibling holds any legal or economic interest in a matter up for vote. The law also requires members to abstain when they are affiliated with a “business entity” that is a party to the vote.

At issue was the legal definition of “business entity.” In its opinion, the Ethics Board concluded that “business entity” does not include any unit within city government. Therefore, a member would not legally have to abstain from a vote that deals with a city government unit under their control.

Stephan Fogleman, chairman of the Board of Ethics, said the city spending panel can choose to tighten the rules.

“Under current law, unfortunately, it appears there is no such prohibition, and the Board of Estimates is free to make their own regulations,” he said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Emily Opilo contributed to this article.

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