In Baltimore, Accountability Has Become A Progressive Cause: A conversation with Bill Henry

Bill Henry / Photo by Joe Cardamone

This story has been updated.

“For far too long, decades too long, the comptroller’s office has languished in relative obscurity,” says Baltimore City Councilman Bill Henry. “To the point that many people sometimes even forget it exists.”

It’s the first day of June and the representative for the fourth district is at St. Mary’s Park in Seton Hill to announce that he is running to be the city’s next comptroller—against Joan Pratt, who has had the job for decades and has for the most part dodged long standing associations with former Mayor Catherine Pugh even through the “Healthy Holly” scandal.

“The comptroller is our city’s most powerful elected official when it comes to holding government accountable,” Henry explains to the crowd of 50 or so.

This powerful position is one many don’t even fully understand. In short, the comptroller is the city’s money manager, overseeing the accounting and finances, responsible for city audits, serving as a member of the Board of Estimates and the Department of Finance, and in charge of the departments of Real Estate and Communication Services.

Henry says part of his campaigning is teaching people what the job entails.

Pratt has been comptroller since 1995*. Today, in St. Mary’s Park, a mixed race, multigenerational crowd is gathered for the campaign kickoff event to change that and get Bill Henry elected as the next city comptroller.

Henry is flanked by other local lawmakers including many that are part of the new wave of more progressive members of city and state government advocating for Baltimore through a progressive lens: Sen. Mary Washington, Del. Robyn Lewis, veteran council member Mary Pat Clarke, along with many councilmembers elected in 2016 who were supposed to radically change city government post-uprising and have instead been saddled with the task for just keeping the city—jumping from scandal to scandal, and suffering from a lack of accountability—going: Kristerfer Burnett, Zeke Cohen, and Shannon Sneed (Ryan Dorsey was in Japan and couldn’t make it but says he supports Henry).

“We are on our fifth mayor in 19 years,” Henry says. “Since 2015, we have had four police commissioners and three transportation directors. At this point in time Baltimore needs more than just more change.”

The crowd cheers when Henry vows to modernize the comptroller’s office and help promote equitable economic development—the sorts of simple though important changes that have eluded Baltimore city because again, there is a lack of accountability and constant corruption.

Pratt co-owned a Pigtown consignment store with Pugh. Called 2 Chic Boutique, it shut down back in April in the midst of the drama over the “Healthy Holly” books—about the same time the Baltimore Brew reported that the Baltimore Inspector General would be looking into the Board of Estimates’ actions while Pugh was in office.

While there are local politicians who frequently grab headlines (such as Councilperson Eric Costello, who generates endless bad ideas, progressive provocateur Ryan Dorsey, or Mayor Bernard “Jack” Young, who suggests teens box their beefs away one week and proposes sound ideas such has water bill legislation the next), Henry has always been less attention grabbing.

He speaks modestly, slowly, and reasonably, pushing progressive ideas in plainspoken language—as if the moves towards more radical change in this city are simply what needs to happen, which of course, they are (for example, today, he will announce the Plastic Bag Reduction Bill). And in recent months, he has been vocal about taking away some of the power given to the mayor and increasing government’s ability to act as a watchdog. He joined other members of the City Council in backing amendments that would give the council more control, including the power to override mayoral veto.

Henry was a progressive voice in council for more than a decade and it is his work that has helped make council into one of the few places in local government where citizens can find hope and some steady hands. He has been working in Baltimore City government since the ‘90s. Henry served as legislative director and staff assistant for Councilperson Mary Pat Clarke from 1991-1995. When Clarke served as city council president he served as chief of staff for Clarke’s successor, Lawrence Bell from 1995 until 1998. He has spent the last 12 years representing the fourth district.

A few days after the campaign event in his office, Henry explains how the comptroller is a chance for residents to get a real, unbiased look at what city officials are doing with their money,.

“[The comptroller] is kind of executive branch, but it’s separately elected from the mayor. It’s not somebody who works for the mayor. It’s not the legislative branch, it’s not the courts. It’s off here to the side trying to keep an eye on how the money is spent and whether it’s being spent properly,” Henry says. “That can be taken as an anti-corruption thing to make sure that somebody is not doing inappropriate spending but I think there is an incredible opportunity to have that office also be thought of as the management consultant for the city.”

Henry recalls a conference featuring lawmakers from all across the country that he attended years ago. The speaker asked people who came from cities with no money to raise their hands. Henry sheepishly raised his hand.

“He looked at me and said ‘How much is your city budget on an annual basis?’ and I looked downcast and I said ‘$2.2 billion’ and he said ‘How can you have $2.2 billion and not have any money?’”

That’s the kind of question the comptroller should always be asking, Henry explains.

“This year’s budget operating and capital is going to be over $3 billion but we don’t have the money to do basic things to take care of our kids,” Henry says. “How can we not have the money to do that when we have all that money. Let’s look at exactly how we are spending our money. That to me is something that the comptroller should be doing. Not just keeping an eye on the money but sharing with the rest of us that information.”

How the city spends, city scandals such as “Healthy Holly,” and ongoing arguments about forever-growing police budgets lead to a dejected sense that the city is inept and corrupt—or both. Henry explains that a more responsible comptroller would lead to a more responsible city and that would lead to more Baltimoreans getting what they need.

Bill Henry / Photo by Joe Cardamone

Henry would like to make it easier for residents to get access to information online. Anybody can search legislative bills online, Henry says, but that’s not the case if people want to access information from the comptroller’s office. Currently, you can look at PDFs of bids for the current week and the last two weeks. Online, you can peruse an archive of Board of Estimates agendas that goes back to 2009. You can photocopy bids, Board of Estimates agendas, and minutes for one dollar per page.

Henry believes we can do better: “Say we were putting out an RFP [request for proposal] for dredging Druid Lake and you’re interested in applying. You want to respond to that RFP. You’d like to see how that contract was resolved the last time,” Henry says. “You can’t go onto the comptroller’s website and type into a little field, ‘Druid Lake dredging.’ You have to click on the individual weeks of Board of Estimates agendas and look at PDFs of each week’s agenda and see if it’s in the table of contents for that week. And if it’s not, you have to check the next week, the next week, and if you don’t know when it was done you could spend hours finding just the right agenda.”

Henry gets excited when he describes simple solutions that helps people—and many Baltimoreans and progressive lawmakers on a city and state level trying to change Baltimore get excited about that too.

Back at St. Mary’s Park, councilperson Burnett recalls how after his election to city council, Henry took Burnett and others under his wing and showed them how to go about the work of running a city.

“He was like, ‘We have one shot at the very beginning to make structural changes to the council and we can do that,’” Burnett said. “And some of those things are coming to fruition right now.”

At the kickoff, Baltimore resident Alex Holt stresses current comptroller Pratt’s connections to Pugh: “I’ve liked the work [Henry] has done as a councilman, I’ve liked the people who have worked with him and also to be honest, [Pratt is] a woman who literally owned a business alongside Catherine Pugh,” Holt says. “I think it’s a little messed up given everything that’s happened the last couple of months to just turn around the following year and send her back for another four years.”

When Sen. Mary Washington speaks, she calls Henry’s campaign launch, “the start of something important and special for our city and something that’s been needed for a long time.”

Then she levels with the crowd and gets everyone to admit they likely barely know what a comptroller does.

“Here’s the thing: The comptroller is not just the tax collector for the city. The comptroller sits on the Board of Estimates and the Board of estimates is responsible for awarding contracts, for soliciting bids, for supervising the purchases of the city, the comptroller is charged to verify all the notes that come out of the Board of Estimates,” Washington says. “They are accountable for making sure that the notes and proceedings are listed properly and that they are made available. The comptroller office also contains the Office of Audits.”

After explaining a bit more about the job, Washington asks the crowd: “Now with all that is happening in our city, don’t you think we should be hearing something more from the Comptroller’s Office?”

Applause follows. For a comptroller that does what the comptroller is supposed to do. For increased transparency. For some kind of shift away from city leaders scratching each other’s backs and leaving citizens behind.

“The comptroller is perfectly poised to be that person who can look at how all the different agencies are doing their work and give the people of Baltimore a straight answer as to how things are working now and give objective advice as to how things could work better,” Henry says. “Because if you are the mayor or anyone else in the administration your political incentive is to make everything sound great. There is no positive for the mayor to come out and tell you how badly one of the city agencies is running when everyone in that agency reports to the mayor and the buck for that agency stops with the mayor.”

* An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Pratt hasn’t been challenged for her seat since 1999. She was challenged as late as 2016. Baltimore Beat regrets the error.