Responding to activists, Mayor Pugh, DPW director assure they don’t want to privatize Baltimore’s water system

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Photo by Joe Shlabotnik, via Flickr

Fear not, Mayor Catherine Pugh and Baltimore City Department of Public Works Director Rudy Chow say: Baltimore’s water system will remain in public control, despite any charter amendments that activists worry could open up a pathway for privatization.

In a joint statement issued Wednesday morning, Pugh and Chow assured they’re not looking to let companies like Suez Environment in on managing Baltimore’s drinking water supply or any of its resources.

“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.”

“The natural and man-made resources that comprise the Baltimore water system are priceless, and we are determined not to let private interests gain control of our water,” they added.

The DPW release alluded to “a series of claims” by activists “questioning the commitment of Baltimore’s leadership to maintaining a publicly owned and operated water system.”

On Monday, shortly after the release of a report from Pugh’s appointed Charter Review Commission, the water-rights advocacy group Food and Water Watch publicly condemned a proposal in the report to create a new pathway for the city’s spending board to approve contracts with vendors.

At present, Charter Review Commission chair and Pugh’s deputy chief of staff Matthew Garbark explained to Baltimore Fishbowl, the city’s constitution permits contract awards via a low-bid process—in which a contractor that seeks the least compensation for a job gets picked—or a high-score process, in which officials score applications and pick the “best” one.

The new proposed option, on page 31 of the report, would allow the Board of Estimates to “award the contract in any manner authorized by ordinance or by the board.”

“We wanted to loosen the strings a little bit,” Garbark said.

As is, the charter dictates that only DPW “shall have charge of the water supply of the City” and its connected properties. The Charter Review Commission did not propose any changes to that section. But Food and Water Watch Maryland issued a statement Monday afternoon suggesting the modification for the Board of Estimates would open the door for a private contractor to eventually take control.

“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. “In many cities, small contracts have acted as a foot in the door for a much larger, more comprehensive water privatization contracts.”

Suez Environment had recently made overtures to city officials and groups about forging a “public-private partnership” to manage the water supply, The Sun reported in December.

Responding to Pugh and Chow’s assurances on Wednesday, Food and Water Watch Maryland organizer Rianna Eckel said they were satisfied, but not totally assuaged on their fears.

“We’re very happy to see that the mayor’s office is stern in their commitment to not privatizing the water system,” Eckel said. “We certainly agree that they city’s water system is a jewel that must be maintained in the public trust.”

Still, she said, the new charter language, which must first be approved by the city council to take effect, is a policy change that “would make it easier to facilitate smaller contracts” that could in turn open the door for companies to pitch their broader privatization plans.

For an example of such language, she pointed to wording that was slashed at the last minute from a recently signed bill that suspended tax lien sales of owner-occupied dwellings in Baltimore for unpaid water bill debt through 2019. Under the language that was torn out (but can still be read in strikethrough font in the law), DPW would have been allowed to retain “any outside professional entity to conduct a review of the Department’s customer service and bill dispute resolution processes.”

Activists raised similar concerns in 2014, when Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s administration entertained proposals to study the water system’s “operating and maintenance performance” while “reducing costs and enhancing operational efficiencies.” (The city didn’t end up awarding the contract to anyone.)

“They’ll do an audit of the system or a review of the system,” Eckel said. “From that, their recommendation is to privatize or enter into a larger public-private partnership. They already have their foot in the door.”

Eckel also suggested Suez Environment has stuck around in Baltimore even though their reported privatization pitch hasn’t been considered publicly. Suez was one of the sponsors of the Pugh’s roundtable discussion for Light City on April 20, this photo shows.

“We know that they’re still hanging around, they’re still trying to talk to her,” Eckel said.

The charter amendment for the new Board of Estimates contract-awarding option was introduced before the Baltimore City Council Monday night. It now heads to a hearing of the Judiciary and Legislative Investigations Committee, set for June 19 at 5:40 p.m.

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Ethan McLeod

Senior Editor at Baltimore Fishbowl
Ethan has been editing and reporting for Baltimore Fishbowl since fall of 2016. His previous stops include Fox 45, CQ Researcher and Connection Newspapers in Virginia. His freelance writing has been featured in CityLab, Slate, Baltimore City Paper, DCist and elsewhere.
Ethan McLeod
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