A What Weekly Exclusive Interview…
The City Comptroller is a little-discussed and under-appreciated role in Baltimore public service. But there’s little doubt that financial management issues have given rise to any number of problems for our city.
Still, the city’s Comptroller, Joan Pratt, has been in office for over 20 years, enjoying a tenure with few challengers, and what often appears to be a dearth of scrutiny. But Jon Bombach is now seeking to change that.
Bombach argues that the relative lack of attention the office gets has allowed the role’s critical functions to be diminished as a critical check on city politics as usual.
As a Libertarian candidate in an overwhelmingly Democratic city, it would seem that he is facing a rocky path. But that hasn’t stopped Jon Bombach from pounding the pavement to build grassroots, community support for his campaign – as he makes the case that, for the role of Comptroller, the Libertarian principles of accountability and transparency are exactly what’s called for in Baltimore.
Citing an Abell Foundation report entitled The Opacity Problem, Bombach is advocating a number of measures to bring the City’s contracting processes and finances into the public eye, alleging that insider dealing has co-opted the investment strategy of City Hall, and that it needs to be re-focused on public services.
In this What Weekly exclusive interview, we sat down with Jon Bombach to hear his thoughts and plans on everything from agency audits that have failed to materialize to his skepticism about Kevin Plank and Sagamore Development’s promises about the Port Covington development project.
We found him to be outspoken – at times even outraged. And regardless of whether you agree with his platform, he is not short on substance…
Jon Bombach: We probably started thinking about running, in earnest, a year and a half ago. It was the end result of seeing the same problems happening over and over again in the city – and you read about them in the paper, and start diving in a little deeper. And you realize that these problems don’t come of anything that unique to Baltimore. They have identifiable causes, and they’re actually things that can be solved, with just basic common sense solutions or business practices.
So the question that arises is: why aren’t they being solved? You read about things like missing funds, or how things never get fixed – we have to do something three or four times before it’s done right, and there are always cost overruns –crazy stuff. No functioning City government can keep on working like this. That has a lot to do with why things are so screwed up in Baltimore.
So we looked at it, and it’s clear that these are not unsolvable issues, but a lot of it comes back to the City’s finances. Without proper oversight and financial controls, things have been running wild for the past twenty years. And the Comptroller is supposed to be the check and balance on the purse strings – the Mayor and the City Council set their agenda, and decide what they’re trying to accomplish, and the Comptroller is supposed to be there to make sure that the voters will actually gets done without breaking the bank.
WW: But you can’t tie all of the city’s problems to finances right? Like the [Justice Department’s] recent report on the Baltimore police…
Well there’s a great example – no of course finance isn’t the answer to all of our problems. But another part of the Comptroller’s job is to do performance audits.
We haven’t had comprehensive performance audits in over 20 years, so you have Departments like the Baltimore Police that have been able to run roughshod…they’ve gotten away with all kinds of craziness. All kinds of abuse of power.
WW: But, does the Comptroller set the metrics that determine success for the police?
Well the Mayor was going to focus on a program called CityStat and outcome based budgeting. It’s kind of fallen by the wayside. But the actual job of the Comptroller is to be an outsider looking in.
So we’d look at – the Police Department for example, we’d compile all of the data. You have 200 complaints about injuries or whatever, and we paid out X million dollars in settlements.
We’d have to ask what’s driving this? Is it the lack of operating procedures? Is it a logistical issue? Is it a manpower problem?
The mantra we keep hearing from city hall is, “we need more people, we need more people.”
We spend 21% of the entire city budget just on police. That’s crazy. That’s basically depriving other departments and social programs of funds. And they need resources. And are we getting effective policing for it?
WW: So that’s where you believe the Comptroller should step in and say: this is a problem that’s a drain on resources.
JB: Exactly, and you start bringing these issues to light. That’s where you’d want to think: compared to other cities of comparable size, are we really effectively managing our police force?
Another good example is the Housing Authority. For years, there hasn’t been an audit of that department either. Meanwhile you’ve had people that have consistently been putting in complaints, saying things are not being repaired in a timely fashion. Then you do some digging and find out that residents, to get anything fixed, you have to have sex with one of these workers!
That kind of lack of accountability, and lack of oversight, is what the comptroller’s office is supposed to address before it gets anywhere near that level.
WW: But it’s interesting because few people pay much attention to the Comptroller’s office.
JB: It’s one of the most underutilized roles within City Hall. Frankly, it’s been dormant for twenty-some years now. There is a huge amount of unused executive power to press for and enact change.
The fact that our current Comptroller sits on the sidelines and rubber stamps every decision that comes out of City Hall shows that the office is not acting as the check and balance it should be.
WW: How do you think, as a Libertarian, you can get this message out in a city that is for the most part very liberal, with an electorate that is likely to balk at the idea of a Libertarian Comptroller?
JB: I think about it a couple different ways. The Comptroller’s primary focus is finances and performance and that crosses all party lines. It’s your money whether you’re Democrat, Republican, unaffiliated or whatever. And the service you get for your money is not supposed to be based on who you’re affiliated with politically.
You should get the same level of service. What speaks to me about the Libertarian platform is the role of transparency and accountability. And whether or not you agree with the rest of the platform – and a lot of people don’t, I get that – I think most people would agree that those principles are important for the role of the Comptroller, regardless of party affiliation.
My focus will be on accountability to the tax payers – all of them. We’ve gotten too far away from the idea of having civil servants. Now we have civil leaders –elected officials that are out of touch with real communities, are not serving our population, and are leaving entire swaths of our community behind. I mean there’s whole neighborhoods that have been neglected for years and years.
It’s not a matter of party politics or even ideology – you should get what you pay for.
WW: But how are you going to bring this message out when politics are so partisan?
JB: I do think there are some die-hard partisans that are only going to vote party line. That’s true. But you’ve had the same Comptroller in office for over 20 years, in this critical role. And if you think things are going to turn around or change there, suddenly, in the next four years…then you vote what you believe because I couldn’t convince you otherwise.
But the reality is this: The Comptroller hasn’t had a challenger in 19 years. She had a Democratic challenger this year, who was unfortunately not able to get enough traction to win in the primary – his message, by the way, was very similar to mine.
But one of the benefits of running third party is that we gave ourselves an additional six months to get out there, talk to people, and learn the real issue affecting people. And the majority of people you talk to don’t care about the political party issue. They’re working and trying to get ahead. And this campaign is about getting them the services they deserve.
WW: So what is it that you, specifically, bring to this role that will allow you to overcome the entrenched interests and the internal Baltimore politics we’ve come to know?
JB: Well first you have to have data that is indisputable. I have the financial background. I did my undergraduate work in Financial Economics and Mathematical Statistics. I did my graduate work in Quantitative Finance. I’ve worked in budget offices and finance departments in the private sector and the public sector. I’ve also been a small business owner, so I’m familiar with the frustrations that we put small business through in Baltimore.
But you’re right, there are many entrenched interests…I’m not naïve about that. I do think, though, that this election cycle we have a unique chance. Of fourteen seats on the City Council, eight of them were turned over this election cycle. We have a new mayor who has an opportunity –a real chance –to clean the slate and start fresh. So while there are still entrenched interests, I think it can be a new day in Baltimore.
Sure, there are going to be challenges, but we are prepared to really leverage the position of the Comptroller, and use our platform, social media, and other tools to open the lines of communication with the public.
You know, we can make recommendations, but we can’t force any implementation. But I’d like to call any City Council member or any Mayoral appointee to account if they say, “I’m not going to do this, even though you’re clearly showing me how I’m screwing the City of Baltimore.”
It’ll be an indefensible position. The problem with our current Comptroller is she’s largely silent on all the issues. The only stance she’s taken in the last 20 years was a personal feud she had with the mayor over a telephone system.
A feud that cost roughly $425,000 a month – for five years. Almost $19 million spent on that – crazy! And that’s the one battle you’re taking up?! We’re closing rec centers; we’re laying teachers off; we’re cutting after school programs; and now they want to defund the library system. And you’re getting into a costly personal tiff over a phone system?
Come on. That’s not prioritizing Baltimore’s problems.
WW: Ok, well Katherine Pugh – the (very very likely) new Mayor – has an even closer relationship with [Pratt]. So…
JB: She does. And we think it’s a clear conflict of interest – they own a business together. So how can we be sure that the Comptroller’s office is going to be, again, the clear check and balance that is required to make sure the will of the voters is accomplished?
I mean there has to be a level of accountability. And honestly after 20 years in office, you can’t say “it’s not my fault things are this bad”. What have you done to fix it?
The Comptroller is there to be the guardian of the people.
WW: So do you then see this as a more adversarial role to the Mayor?
JB: No, of course not. That’s not what I envision. It’s not how we accomplish things.
Yes, we’re going to complete the audits. We’re going to identify the problem areas with real data. Then we’re going to map out a plan of corrective action to address those areas and work together with the Mayor’s office and Department heads.
If we have to give departments additional staffing or resources to implement these plans, we will. We can imbed representatives from our office if we need to. This isn’t about a power struggle or an ego thing, it should be about making the City work.
WW: It seems like your biggest challenge is that a lot of people still don’t know who you are, and there isn’t a lot of time left. So what are your plans between now and the election?
JB: The biggest challenge we have now is educating folks – most people don’t even know what the comptroller does, let alone who I am. So we have to make it clear that, even though this is not the most discussed or exciting role in City government, it’s an important one – and a powerful one.
Then we need to let people know they have an option. So right now we’re developing some videos for the web, we’re using social media now, and we’ll have some radio and TV ads as we get closer to election day.
But the campaign’s growing, and every community we go into –people understand there’s a problem. They don’t know how bad it is, and they don’t know what the solution is, but as soon as we get in front of them and offer a clear line of action –instant traction, because people are tired of it.
WW: So it comes back to public pressure for you…
JB: It has to. The biggest problem City Hall has is that they’re all insular. They get elected, spend thirty years closed off in their office, and they aren’t listening – unless you happen to be a big donor or have the right connections. It’s either that, or they already have their eyes on the next position.
The way to make change is to engage with the community, and have the public behind you, so you have the political capital to get things done.
WW: How have you been engaging with the activist community in Baltimore, given that there seems to be a higher level of social consciousness due to movements like Black Lives Matter?
JB: We’re engaging with anyone who wants to see change in Baltimore. So, I might be a Libertarian, but we’re working hand in hand with Green Party candidates, and with independent candidates. We’re working with community activists, from the BLM folks to local neighborhood activists…across the spectrum.
The Office of the Comptroller, dealing with money, touches so many aspects of everyone’s lives. And we have to be responsive, whether it’s about the trash getting picked up on time or whether it’s the crumbling sewage system – sinkholes are popping up and sewage is backing up into people’s basements.
BCPD has some very raw and persistent issues. But there are a whole range of services that are not being delivered as they should to Baltimore citizens – our school system, our rec centers, our public transportation. The fact that you have to replace the front end of your car or get an alignment each month because of the road conditions…I mean, where is all that money going?
There are so many issues that have gone unaddressed.
WW: You’ve said a lot here, but I do want to ask your thought on the funding of the Port Covington project, since your focus will be finance, and it was been asked of every Mayoral candidate.
JB: It’s a great issue to bring up…The Mayor’s office and the Baltimore Development Corporation said they vetted a $660 million deal in ten days…The City can’t straighten out a water bill in ten days!
And they’ve said they could complete an analysis of a deal that’s over half a billion dollars that’s going to lock up the future of Baltimore for over thirty years.
Right now they’re trying to steamroll this through, before any new candidates get in to office. I think it’s time to hit the brakes on that.
If it is such a great deal, let’s take the time. Let’s perform our due diligence. If it stands up to thorough, comprehensive analysis, then it’s a good deal, and I’m all for it. If it doesn’t, it’s time to take it back to the drawing board.
But right now, you’re going to risk our bond rating, you’re not going to see cash flow number one for eighteen years…The assumptions that are made in the current analysis are eighteen years out!. Those are not really credible assumptions.
Too many times, our city has gone into these kinds of deals with very little risk mitigation. They paint very rosy pictures, and don’t even consider the worst case scenario. And in Baltimore, let’s face it, you need contingency plans.
WW: The Grand Prix comes to mind…
JB: Exactly! That deal could have been so much better for us. Whether you like the Grand Prix or not, we could have structured that so that we wouldn’t have been the ones in the end, holding the bag –left paying $14.5 million to do all the infrastructure upgrades, and then being the last ones to actually get paid back anything – to the point where we actually had to sue Baltimore Racing Development [LLC].
That was such a poorly written deal…
WW: Or the Interest rate swaps we were sold and lost billions…
JB: Or the Hilton Hotel downtown. Or the Casino that was supposed to fund our education system. Now we’re losing money on that. What a poorly written deal.
But that’s the product you get when you ram this stuff through with no transparency.
With that track record, I don’t have a lot of confidence in the Port Covington deal at this point. And maybe it’s the best deal in the world. But if you’re trying to really engage the citizens of Baltimore, why would you do it behind closed doors… and why try to ram it through?
I think there will be some benefits from the project either way, but is it the smartest plan for the City? I doubt it.
WW: Well we’ve gone in-depth on some issues here, but to wrap up, what would you say is the main message of your campaign.
JB: Our campaign is focused on three key points. First, Comprehensive audits. The voters voted four years ago to have thirteen agencies –not even all the agencies just thirteen major ones – audited every four years. We’re in year five, and none of them have been thoroughly completed.
We have one that’s been a qualified audit, one that was only a performance audit that had no back-up documentation…I mean, we’re going to be in breach of the City Charter. It’s ridiculous. It shouldn’t be like that. I want to focus on regular comprehensive audits of all agencies.
Second, we need to modernize our financial system. The fact that you can’t pull up in real time, financial data, and see how close we are to accomplishing the goals to fixing the problems, or whether we’re using the money correctly is a function of an outdated system that’s hiding problems instead of helping solve them.
Lastly, the Comptroller sits on the Board of Estimates. The Abell Foundation did a study that found that the majority of the contracts that the city puts out have overruns with a magnitude of 160 to 170 percent. What that means is that every time the city puts something out, we end up getting hosed.
Why is that? Why are we letting these developers hose the city? Is it because they’re major campaign contributors? I can’t say that for sure, but it seems odd.
WW: Well one thing is for sure, you’re are going to face a lot of push-back making the changes you’re talking about…
JB: Well, you don’t do it alone. As I said, you need the support of the community – one that’s more engaged than they have been for a long time, and you need to leverage these new members of the City Council. They ran on a platform of change too. They want to turn things around.
It’s not one person. The Comptroller’s office should do the analysis, develop the corrective action plans, and then the hardest part is getting everybody on board.
You’re right, that isn’t an easy task. But if we can clearly articulate and show people a plan for how to get things done, and what the outcomes will look like, I think it’ll be hard to find any politician in Baltimore who would stand in opposition…
Editor’s note: to learn more about Jon Bombach and his candidacy for City Comptroller, you can visit his campaign website here.