Pugh proposes charter amendment to keep water and sewer system under city ownership

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Photo by Joe Shlabotnik, via Flickr

In an apparent attempt to assuage concerns that she would privatize the city’s water system, Mayor Catherine Pugh on Monday announced a charter amendment to keep the utilities under the city’s stewardship.

The language would make it impossible for the city to divest from the water and sewer systems, calling ownership of them “inalienable.”

“The City’s water and sewer system is a priceless asset for the citizens of Baltimore and I am determined to do everything possible to protect this vital resource and ensure that it remains reliable, clean, and plentiful,” Pugh said in a statement. “This amendment will safeguard Baltimore City’s water system and require that it is always operated in the best interests of those who rely on it, and for generations to come.”

The proposal comes after activists from the group Food and Water Watch raised concerns about suggested changes to the city’s charter from a mayor-appointed commission to review the constitution.

An organizer with the Maryland chapter of the group, Rianna Eckel, praised the new amendment.

“This is a remarkable step,” she said. “If this were to move forward, Baltimore could be the first big city to ban asset sales of the water system.”

Along with suggestions for engaging citizens in the budgeting process, eliminating gender-biased language and looking at a restructuring of the Baltimore City Council after the 2020 Census, the 55-member Charter Review Commission last week proposed a change to the rules by which the city’s spending board can accept bids and contracts.

But activists with Food and Water Watch said this would open up the possibility of privatizing the water and sewer systems. They would potentially have a willing partner in a French-based private utility company, Suez Environment, who reportedly reached out to the city about a deal last year.

“This is a power-grab by the Mayor that could lead to water privatization,” Mary Grant, director of Food and Water Watch’s Water for All campaign, said in the statement last week. “In many cities, small contracts have acted as a foot in the door for much larger, more comprehensive water privatization contracts.”

Pugh and Department of Public Works Director Rudy Chow responded by releasing a joint statement assuring the utilities would remain under the purview of the city.

“Baltimore City’s drinking water system is a jewel that must be maintained in the public trust,” Pugh and Chow said. “From the reservoirs in Baltimore and Carroll counties, to our filtration plants in the Ashburton and Montebello communities, we share the commitment of prior generations of civic leaders to keep this life-sustaining resource in public hands.”

Even though this new language announced today would ban an outright sale, Eckel said it’s possible Suez or another company could come in and try to sub-lease the systems and run them for the city, or some other public-private partnership.

“This still would allow everything up to an outright sale of the system,” she said. “I think this still raises the same concerns. The same concerns are still on the table.”

Ethan McLeod contributed to this report.

Brandon Weigel

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