C. Fraser Smith: Duty falls flat in Pratt spat

Special to the Daily Record//October 25, 2012

C. Fraser Smith: Duty falls flat in Pratt spat

By C. Fraser Smith

//Special to the Daily Record

//October 25, 2012

It’s still shocking to think of two ranking city officials — Comptroller Joan Pratt and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake — on their way to a showdown in court.

It’s a failure of leadership and disregard for the city. The combatants should have been able to avoid this.

The consequences are even more dire than they seem.

Imagine for a moment what may happen down the road. Some issue involving Peter Angelos comes before the Board of Estimates.

The comptroller says she will step aside. She will do so because the Angelos firm is representing her in the lawsuit. She won’t participate in the discussion. She won’t vote. Her lawyer will work pro bono, but his service has a value that obliges her to withdraw.

Cost to the people

She may deal with one conflict of interest in this way. But at what cost? What of her duty to serve the people? What about her duty to be involved in public policy matters — particularly financial matters?

She‘s the city’s chief financial officer. Suddenly, she can’t serve in that capacity? That’s the more important conflict.

This comes after a dispute over procurement of new telephones. The comptroller’s office has always handled such. The mayor wanted a change and may have skirted some important procedural requirements to get it. The city’s inspector general so ruled. The city solicitor says no laws were broken.

Still aggrieved, Pratt got herself a lawyer. Perhaps she feels the mayor’s conduct is so egregious that fighting her in court is the essence of representing the citizens. Perhaps she feels that concern justifies abandoning her fundamental duties. Big leap.

Should she persist in this effort, she would not be on hand to vote or argue or advise on any issues involving Angelos, a major player in downtown development issues. Again, the personal conflict of interest seems less important than the conflict created for her as a member of the board that approves or rejects issues of importance to the city.

What might those issues be? Something having to do with Oriole Park at Camden Yards? What about the Superblock project? Or State Center, the development project undertaken by the state, supported by the mayor but opposed by Angelos — and blocked by him in court. For the moment and perhaps permanently, he has derailed that project.

Deciding without Pratt

As matters stand, any decision regarding his interest will have to be decided without Pratt. The mayor, the city solicitor and the public works director will almost always be the majority. City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young also has a vote on the board, but he’ll be carrying the ball alone on matters involving Angelos.

A fully functioning government as envisioned by the founders and reaffirmed over time hangs in the balance here.

This, of course, is not the first time in city history that city officials have been at war. The late William Donald Schaefer, as mayor, fought constantly with the late Walter Orlinsky, then council president. Both seemed to enjoy the combat.

There were moments when Orlinsky had deep differences with Schaefer over policy up to and including differences over the city government’s powers.

In the current spat, Pratt — and the people — may be the losers. Even if she gives up the suit, her relationship with Angelos will hang over everything she does in the future.

Some eager candidate for comptroller may run against her, promising uncompromised service — no exceptions.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column runs Fridays in The Daily Record. His email address is [email protected]


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