Last Thursday, Councilman Bill Henry was kind enough to sit down with me to talk about his run for Baltimore City Comptroller against Joan M. Pratt, who’s held the position for the last 23 years. Full disclosure, I’ve known Bill for many years thanks to his volunteer work in the local arts community and from working together occasionally at my day job.
I’m actually holding a Meet & Greet for him at my house this Sunday, 9/22, from 12-2pm! Snacks and drinks provided, email me at bmore4borderjustice at gmail dot com for the address.
We covered a ton of ground in our talk, including:
- His childhood in Govans, growing up with a network of civil rights activists and local elected officials,
- Why he ran for the House of Delegates at the age of 22, while still in college,
- How he then worked for various politicians, in non-profits, and as a consultant, before spending 12 years on the City Council, and
- Some of the legislation he’s most proud of from his time in office plus the most frustrating things about our system.
Below is a small portion of our conversation, focusing on what the heck the Comptroller does anyway, and why it’s time for a change. Read the full transcript of the interview here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1fTGyb_nhjdqmLCLQR0HSwIhJQqyQLXnaE-f2rXl8Cdw/edit?usp=sharing
Abby: What made you decide to run for Comptroller?
Bill: I had announced to my constituents back in 2016, if I got re-elected, this would be my last term, because I introduced a charter amendment on term limits, and even though it didn’t pass, I still believed that three terms for a council person is enough.
Abby: Give a fresh blood a shot!
Bill: And last fall, I was looking at the Comptroller’s office and what I realized was, there’s a lot of wasted opportunity there. The Comptroller is actually a very powerful position, much more so in many ways than definitely any individual council person, and in some ways, even more so than the collective power of the council in terms of their access to information.
The City Council has oversight over the agencies but they’re really very challenged by what information they have. Whereas with the Comptroller’s office, whenever an agency wants to spend money, it has to be approved by the Board of Estimates, which means you have to send a detailed memo to the Comptroller’s office explaining what you wanna do and why.
Abby: Yup, I’ve written a number of Board of Estimates memos.
Bill: Right, so here’s the thing, if you think about all the information that goes into a Board of Estimates memo, and then you think about the paragraph summary that actually shows up on the Board of Estimates agenda, that paragraph summary is all the rest of us see. Now, you could say that the purpose clause of a bill is like the paragraph summary on the Board of Estimates agenda, because that purpose clause is all that shows up on the City Council agenda.
Abby: Yeah, but I figured out how, on the City Council website, to look at the full text of a bill, because it’s all about what it actually would do in detail.
Bill: And not just the full text of the bill, but you can go on to Legistar, the tracking database, and you can also see everything else in the bill file, all the agency reports, amendments that were passed, if people have written letters in support. But on the Board of Estimates, the only information… if you wanted to find out about when was the last time we put out a contract to dredge Druid Lake, the way that you would find that out on the Comptroller’s website would be to click on the scanned-in PDF of last week’s Board of Estimates agenda, look in the table of contents, and if it’s not there, go click on the week before, and if it’s not there, go click on the week before, and keep doing that for the last three or four years until you find it.
Abby: Holy shit.
Bill: Because there’s no database. And even when you click on that PDF, all you’re seeing is the summary. All that back-up information that agencies put a lot of work into is just sitting in a file in the Comptroller’s office where only they have access to it.
Abby: So, I take it one of the things that you’d be interested in doing as Comptroller is increasing transparency.
Bill: Oh my god, yes. That is… it is such low-hanging fruit. The City Council has had Legistar online since 2006. That’s 13 years that the second floor [of City Hall, where the Comptroller’s office is housed] has seen the fourth floor [of City Hall, where the council members have their offices] doing this and gone “ehh.”
Abby: So, the Board of Estimates is the Mayor, the Comptroller and one other person?
Bill: Five people on the Board of Estimates, the Mayor and the Comptroller, the Council President, they’re the three elected officials on the board, but then the City Solicitor and the Director of Public Works also sit on the board and that is why the city is the way it is, because they both work for the Mayor, so…
Abby: Oh, so the Mayor ends up having, like, three votes out of five. So the Comptroller, my understanding of that role is that they’re in charge of financials for the city…
Bill: The Director of Finance is really the CFO for the city, the Comptroller is more responsible for being the financial watchdog. The Comptroller sees everything that the Mayor and the administration are doing, and it’s the Comptroller’s job to go “Hey… this doesn’t make sense.” And one of the problems we’ve had for the last 23 years is our Comptroller never says, “Hey…” Previous comptrollers went to the media and said, “Hey… did you see what the Mayor is trying to do here?”
Abby: Ah, so there was a much more public facing role to the office.
Bill: If you knew that DOT had repaved Roland Avenue [which runs through well-to-do parts of town] multiple times in a relatively short span of years and each time had paid millions of dollars to do it… if you’re the Mayor, you’re not gonna go out of your way to play that up, but every time that is done, paperwork goes through the Comptroller’s office.
Abby: And you feel like that watchdog role is not being played by the current Comptroller.
Bill: Not being played at all. And I mean, to some extent it’s a personality thing. Joan [M. Pratt, the current Comptroller] is a very nice lady, she’s very low-key, just as an individual, and she’s not naturally communicative. And when I say that, I wanna be careful about my criticism because I don’t think of myself as being particularly good at self-promotion, compared to some of my colleagues and former colleagues. But when the job itself requires you to communicate information out, I’m happy to do that, and I try. She doesn’t even try.
Abby: One thing I say to people when I’m talking about this race and why it matters is that it doesn’t seem like the finances have gone great in the last couple of decades…
Bill: I think that Baltimore has made a lot of bad decisions, and I have to ask, would we have made better decisions if more of us had been better informed?
Abby: So, aside from the transparency, oversight, public watchdog stuff, is there anything else to say in terms of what you would do as comptroller?
Bill: Sure, so that first thing is modernizing the office and making it more open and transparent. The Comptroller oversees the Department of Audits, that is also very under-utilized.
Abby: Do we have agency audits at this point?
Bill: We do have agency audits, we’ve spent some serious time over the last couple of years putting requirements in the charter as to how many agencies have to be audited and how often. The charter now requires us to audit 16 key agencies every other year, so 8 a year. And my problem with that is the Comptroller’s office treats that as their goal and not as the floor.
We should be auditing specific operations, we could be doing performance audits on specific operations in each agency. How does DOT determine the inspections process for construction jobs? I cannot believe with all the complaints and concerns we’ve had over the last several years that the Comptroller has not done a performance audit on the water billing system.
I don’t usually do Bible or religious things in campaigns, but there’s a story in the Bible called The Parable of the Talents. Are you familiar? Okay, so a master takes two servants, and gives them each of measure of wealth —
Abby: Oh riiight, and one of them buries it, one of them invests it and comes back with more.
Bill: Right, and the one who buried it says, “Look, I kept it safe.” Like, Joan is so the servant who buried her talent. She’s just run it, or technically just kept it running. It hasn’t been run as much as it’s been administrated, or managed, and there’s been no proactivity, no vision.
Baltimore can be so much better than it is, but if we’re gonna be better, we’re gonna have to make better choices, and if we’re gonna run Baltimore differently, in a lot of cases that’s gonna mean we’re gonna have to get comfortable with different people doing things. We have a tendency to just treat incumbents like if they didn’t make a big mistake —
Abby: Right, if you’re just scandal-free…
Bill: We just send them back. Incumbency shouldn’t be about being a default choice. The advantage of incumbency should be, you have an opportunity to show the people what you have accomplished.
Abby: Speaking of scandals, there is one more thing I should mention, and that’s that Joan Pratt is… well, was, I think the store’s closed now… business partners with [former Mayor] Catherine Pugh for many years. And so that was a red flag for me, with Pugh’s scandal. Is there any there-there to your mind?
Bill: I have no idea whether the fact that she was business partners with Catherine Pugh is going to mean that she’s gonna get pulled into any of Catherine Pugh’s legal problems. I do know that I found it troubling that when that issue was raised during the 2016 mayoral campaign, and it was raised on Catherine’s end, because Joan’s already Comptroller, and now one of the Comptroller’s business partners is running for Mayor —
Abby: — and theoretically they’re supposed to be, like, checks and balances on each other, and they have a vested financial interest in each other!
Bill: — and what Catherine said at the time was “I don’t think it’ll be a problem, but I’m happy to just divest my interest in the business,” but then she never did. So, the one thing I would say that I find troubling is it apparently never occurred to Joan that it was also an option for her to divest herself of the business.
Abby: It seems like a pretty strong conflict of interest to me.
Bill: I would think so too.
Abby: Okay, well, we gotta wrap up. Thank you, Bill, this has been great.
Also! The Maryland Trans Resilience Conference is coming up on Saturday, hosted by Trans Healthcare MD and The Baltimore Trans Alliance, check it out! https://www.transhealthcaremd.org/mtrc
Cultural Event of the Week: Ducky Dynamo was kind enough to donate her DJ talents to the LGBTQ+ Dance Party Protest we held last week in response to the Republican retreat, and DAAAMNN, we couldn’t have lucked out more, I couldn’t stop moving!! This Thursday night, she’s presenting (you)SB: Open Ducks s2:e3 at The Depot, an open mic night for local DJ’s.
Green Event of the Week: In advance of the UN Climate Summit next week, there is a Global Climate Strike (https://globalclimatestrike.net/) starting this Friday, 9/20, largely led by young people. The Baltimore Climate Strike is being led by Sunrise Movement Baltimore. If you can, ditch work that day, get down to the Inner Harbor and add your voice to theirs.
Song of the Week: “It’s Money That Matters” by Randy Newman
Of all of the people that I used to know / Most never adjusted to the great big world / I see them lurking in book stores / Working for the Public Radio / Carrying their babies around in a sack on their back / Moving careful and slow / It’s money that matters, hear what I say / It’s money that matters in the USA