You’ve heard us say it before: Baltimore’s water system is in crisis.
This time, it was just the addition of 13 simple words in a city charter amendment proposal drafted by a commission appointed by Mayor Pugh’s that could have caused irreparable damage to Baltimore’s water infrastructure.
What’s this about changes to the city charter?
The Baltimore city charter lays the foundation for how Baltimore operates: the city’s constitution, if you will. Every few year, a charter commission at the mayor’s discretion proposes changes to this foundational document. But City Council has to then approve them or modify them.
On Tuesday, the mayor withdrew four out of five of her proposed charter amendments, including one that would have radically shifted the way Baltimore awards contracts to private companies after a huge public backlash and real concerns from City Councilmembers about what the changes could mean. The proposals essentially allowed Mayor Pugh’s administration to ability to hand out contracts as they pleased, instead of following competitive bidding best practices..
We knew these amendments spelled trouble.
Those 13 little words, in particular, could have given Mayor Pugh the authority to lease out all or pieces of Baltimore’s publicly held water system as part of a “public-private partnership.” Frightened by these proposals, we fought back.
Mayor Pugh’s decision to withdraw her plan Tuesday only came after concerted pushback from groups devoted to keeping Baltimore’s water public, including Food & Water Watch, the Maryland American Federation of Teachers, and others.
Keeping the privatization industry at bay in Baltimore, for now, is a huge win for the city. Water privatization elevates corporate power in place of reliability, affordability, and local control of the human right to water.
Though Mayor Pugh withdrew her concerning amendments, it doesn’t change her powerful stronghold over private contracting and the decision-making process for Baltimore’s water. The Board of Estimates, which make the decisions over Baltimore’s water and sewer system, is mayor-controlled. That’s because three of the five seats are filled by the mayor and two directors she personally appoints. Only three votes are needed to pass anything, and Mayor Pugh always has them.
But what’s so bad about public-private partnerships?
Public-private partnerships are little more than privatization with a longer name. It’s industry jargon made up to confuse people. We all know we need to fix and maintain our infrastructure, yes, but not by corporations profiting off the deal.
To address the huge concerns about Baltimore’s water privatization after it became a scandal, Mayor Pugh then introduced yet another amendment to the charter that declared the public as having inalienable ownership over the water system, making Baltimore the first major city to ban selling the public water system to a private company.
That’s reassuring, but there is still no security that she, or future mayors, won’t move forward with a form of privatization that falls just short of a full asset sale. There are still major concerns about corporations attempting to manage or lease the system. The disturbing reality is that a public-private partnership would still leave communities with higher costs, worse water service, and fewer jobs.
And already, the sharks are circling. Suez Environment, a French water company with a concerning U.S. track record, has been courting Baltimore for several months to try and seduce officials into one of these public-private partnerships.
While the mayor would not be able to enter into Suez’s proposed 50-year lease of the system without public notice, it would certainly be easier for her to give Suez a foot in the door by entering into a much smaller contract with them, without much fanfare.
Baltimore already has one of the strongest mayor-controlled forms of government in the country. It’s good that the Council is pushing back on handing Mayor Pugh even more power, but let’s take it a step step further.
They should amend the charter to allow public input into decisions about all forms of water privatization by requiring a public referendum on any long-term operations or management contracts, leases, or asset sales of our water and sewer system.
We dodged a serious threat by stopping these charter amendments, but with the Mayor’s eye on public-private partnerships, proactive measures are necessary.
Samantha Nelson is a summer communications intern at Food & Water Watch.