Taxpayers' right to know

July 06, 1995

The controversy over Baltimore's payments to Shapiro and Olander, the law firm run by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's closest political friends, should prompt a full disclosure of how the city farms out private law work.

Although the city solicitor's office has a staff of 78 and a budget of $10 million, private lawyers have increasingly been hired in recent years to handle sensitive assignments. This is particularly the case in a web of quasi-governmental corporations that was created by mayors starting with William Donald Schaefer to circumvent public scrutiny and conventional controls required by the City Charter.

Because the city does not keep centralized records to tally how much it spends on outside legal work, no one seems to know the size -- or necessity -- of these expenditures.

Four years ago, Mr. Schmoke promised to establish such a central accounting system. He has not. "I dropped the ball," he acknowledges.

Among the reasons for the lack of a central accounting clearing house is the uneven state of record keeping among city and quasi-governmental bureaucracies. Some of these agencies may have computerized their records, but many still rely on handwritten ledgers. The next mayor should see to it that all City Hall record-keeping is computerized.

Modern accounting is essential if the city is to begin performance-based reviews of its departments. Such a system of reviews is long overdue and absolutely essential.

No one is accusing the Shapiro and Olander law firm of not performing its contractual duties in handling the legal work for a number of city agencies. But the fact that no one knows for sure how much that firm is reaping from its contracts with the friendly Schmoke administration underscores that full disclosure is needed. Was it $1.4 million, double the amount the firm received in the first four years of the Schmoke administration, or substantially more? Baltimore taxpayers have the right to know.

Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. hit the nail on the head when he said: "Public monies and how they're spent should be fully disclosed."

The contention of Schmoke spokesman Clinton R. Coleman that this newspaper is somehow unfair toward Mr. Schmoke in raising the issue without waiting for promised figures is ridiculous. The fact is we have been asking for an accounting of the Shapiro and Olander fees from the Schmoke administration for at least the past four years.

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