By Peta Richkus.
This article is a response to the August 7, 2019 Letter to the Editor written by Tom Quirk, Chair of the Baltimore County Council.
Since my testimony before the Baltimore County Council during their June 25, 2019 Work Session prompted Council deliberation about the proposed Sage Policy Group contract referred to by Council Chairman Quirk (“Some Baltimore County Council members are questioning whether to continue working with a local economic consulting firm after a resident raised concerns…”), please allow me to comment further.
Although Mr. Quirk states, “While my colleagues and I discovered through our deliberative process that certain legal and contract compliance concerns may indeed exist with Mr. Basu’s lobbying activities…,” the livestream video clearly shows (beginning at 1.04.55), there were no comments or questions from the Council before my testimony even though Mr. Quirk asked twice after the County Auditor read the item’s Fiscal Note if there were.
In my allotted three minutes, I expressed my concerns about several procurement items on the agenda, in particular the proposed renewal of the County’s no-bid consultant contract with Sage Policy Group.
(For the record: the proposed contract award, Agenda Item FM-17, Economic Consultant to the County Council, was scheduled to be voted on during the regular Council Legislative Session July 1, 2019 and would have been a new Sole Source [non-competitive] 4-year contract awarded to Sage Policy Group, following on similar contracts since at least 2010.)
Mr. Anirban Basu, Chairman and CEO of Sage Policy Group, has served as chairman of the Baltimore County Economic Advisory Council (BCEAC) since 2002 and has provided economic analysis and personal income forecasting services for the County’s Spending Affordability Committee (SAC) since 2010. That’s a long time.
Notwithstanding his long-standing relationship with Baltimore County and his contractual relationship with the Council, in the run up to the May 2019 Council vote on revenue enhancements Mr. Basu appeared in three separate Center Maryland Facebook videos against the proposals. In doing so, Mr. Basu crossed the line from independent consultant to lobbyist for the development community and their business partners.
It’s one thing to manage potential conflicts of interest when you provide economic analysis for energy suppliers, law firms, and real estate developers, as well as for Associated Builders and Contractors (the largest construction networking organization in the region, according to Baltimore Business Journal), the Construction Financial Management Association, Maryland Realtors, and Marcum Construction Industry Group, as is the case with Mr. Basu and Sage Policy Group.
But by acting as a public advocate against the County’s best efforts to achieve fiscal sustainability as he did, Mr. Basu himself undermined the appearance of objectivity that is necessary for credibility. By doing so, he himself raised the question of conflict of interest. By doing so, he went far beyond expressing his “personal views,” as claimed by Chairman Quirk, acting instead as an unregistered lobbyist for developers. (Mr. Basu was not registered as a lobbyist with the Baltimore County Ethics Commission as of its June 2019 Lobbyist Registration report.) In my view, his heavily promoted public opposition was a violation of his fiduciary responsibility while under contract with the County.
So yes, as a County resident and former Primary Procurement Officer for the State of Maryland, I believed it was fair to ask the Council members – Mr. Basu having been economic advisor to the Council all these years of declining fiscal sustainability, Sage Policy Group having received 100’s of thousands of dollars in Baltimore County Public Schools contracts (with many County residents finding the Sage Policy Group school enrollment projections flawed and contributory to our seriously overcrowded schools), and Sage Policy Group having many clients whose interests may not always align with the County’s – why wouldn’t the County seek a new outside advisor for independent economic analysis?
As Mr. Plymyer suggested in his earlier commentary to which Mr. Quirk was replying, especially given the quadrennial comprehensive zoning process that begins next month, should they again choose Sage Policy Group, the Baltimore County Council would leave itself open to an accusation that the positions and preferences of builders and developers are being “channeled” to the Council through their consultant.
The Council has announced that it will have an open procurement for an Economic Consultant to the County Council, though the term, scope and selection criteria for the new contract have not yet been released. A Due Date for submittals has not yet been announced.
Public perception of an honest and open public procurement will be important. Independent economic analysis is needed. The goal: to provide the Baltimore County Council the best unbiased information upon which to make decisions that have far-reaching ramifications affecting County residents for years to come.
A Towson resident, Ms. Richkus was MD Secretary of General Services, Jan 1999 – Jan 2003; and Commissioner, Port of Baltimore, MD Port Administration, July 2008 – Jan 2014.
One thought on “Chairman Quirk is Missing the Point about Sage Policy Group”
Let’s make it simple for Mr. Quirk: The FDA may listen to what the chief economist for PhRMA, the trade association representing Big Pharma, has to say. But the FDA wouldn’t hire the chief economist for PhRMA to be its OWN chief economic advisor. It’s astounding how little Mr. Quirk seems to understand about the need to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest. Or maybe he understands, but doesn’t care.
The County Council regulates the land development and building industry in the county, and is supposed to balance the interests of that industry against the interests of ordinary citizens who live and work in the county. In the past, that obligation to give weight to the interests of ordinary citizens was honored mainly in the breach. Time for a change.