Mitchell targets contract process

Councilman to propose major reforms to city's dealings with businesses

May 23, 2007|By Sumathi Reddy | Sumathi Reddy,Sun reporter

Taking his most direct shot at Mayor Sheila Dixon, City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. will propose a detailed set of reforms today that would drastically change the way the city awards contracts, including eliminating two mayoral appointees from the city's Board of Estimates.

The changes also focus on companies that contribute to city campaigns and attempt to bring transparency to the often-murky links between political contributions and contracts.

Mitchell said he will introduce legislation next month that would reduce the powerful five-member board that approves city contracts and spending to three members. Under his proposal, the Board of Estimates would consist of the mayor, City Council president and city comptroller -- thereby eliminating "a tremendous abuse of power," he said.

"My argument is this is another way of making sure that we change the way we do business in the city," said Mitchell. "We want to level the playing field. The whole point is to end the pay to play that's been taking place."

Changing the composition of the Board of Estimates would require an amendment to the city charter, which would have to be approved by voters in a citywide referendum. Mitchell's legislation must first pass the City Council and be signed by the mayor.

The Board of Estimates proposal is among seven changes Mitchell will officially unveil at a news conference today.

Mitchell, a Democrat, is challenging Dixon in the Sept. 11 mayoral primary.

Comptroller Joan M. Pratt, Del. Jill P. Carter, Circuit Court Clerk Frank M. Conaway Sr., city schools administrator Andrey Bundley and perennial candidate A. Robert Kaufman also have said they are running or considering a run.

Dixon became mayor Jan. 17, when Martin O'Malley became governor.

"Mayor Dixon is busy running the city of Baltimore," said Anthony McCarthy, a spokesman for Dixon. Dixon is in Las Vegas attending a convention of the International Council of Shopping Centers, a New York-based trade association for the retail industry. "And while Councilman Mitchell is out campaigning, the mayor's making things happen all over the city of Baltimore.

"He's trying desperately to be relevant in a contest that he's completely unequipped to participate in," McCarthy added.

In his proposal, Mitchell speaks of "recent incidents where our elected officials have abused their positions of power and trust to benefit friends, family and campaign contributors."

"There are some incidents that happened with the current and interim mayor," he said. "It's not for me to decide whether there is something illegal that took place. It's just that we in government need to make sure there are tough rules that will eliminate impropriety and the appearance of impropriety."

Mitchell's other proposed measures include eliminating the practice of handing out low-dollar contracts to circumvent bidding procedures, punishing companies that circumvent minority-subcontracting requirements and requiring audits of city contracts and agencies.

Also included are proposals to ban campaign staff from lobbying elected officials and requiring that businesses that make campaign contributions and have city contracts over $25,000 disclose their links on a city Web site.

The Sun has reported that as City Council president, Dixon participated in official business that benefited Utech, a company that employed her sister, Janice Dixon.

The city's ethics law prohibits public officials from participating in "any matter" that involves a sibling's interest or the interest of a relative's employer. But at a council hearing, Dixon specifically asked about Utech without mentioning her sister's employment.

The ethics law also requires public officials to disclose whether siblings or other relatives work for companies that do business with the city or are regulated by the city. Utech was regulated by the city's Minority and Women's Business Opportunity Office, but Dixon did not disclose her sister's job until after The Sun reported it.

Dixon has also come under fire for $500,000 that her office had paid to her former campaign chairman's company, Ultimate Network Integration, without a proper written contract.

City procurement rules require that all contracts over $5,000 be approved by the Board of Estimates; an e-mail obtained by The Sun showed that Dixon's staff worked out a deal to keep payments under $5,000.

Dixon was cleared by a city ethics panel in the Utech case in January, but Utech's owner has been indicted and is awaiting trial. The status of a state prosecutor's probe remains unclear because officials don't comment on the status of their cases.

Mary Boyle, a spokeswoman for Common Cause in Washington, said the two campaign-related measures sounded promising.

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