Local Government Reform

What Baltimore Needs is to change its local governmental culture.

Attitude readjustment is needed throughout Baltimore City government, from a more customer service-oriented bureaucracy, to a more collaborative and balanced power dynamic between branches of government. The next Administration must find ways to reform the City’s human resources department to accomplish the former, but we must all work together to manage the latter.

Back in 2012, I introduced a package of legislation designed to restructure some of the basic practices and institutions of Baltimore City government.  The package consists of four charter amendments, which would have to be ratified by the voters at a general election, should the City Council pass them and the Mayor sign them. Any or all of them can also be put on the ballot, without approval of the Mayor and City Council, by petition of the citizenry.

Two of the charter amendments would make small shifts in the power dynamic between the City Council and the Mayor, while still retaining the main tenants of our “strong mayor” system of government.  While many of us have been on occasion frustrated by this system, from a pure policy perspective, it does provide maximum accountability for the citizens – the Mayor has most of the power, and with most of the power comes most of the responsibility.  However, in our current system, the Mayor is so “strong” that it makes it hard for the supposed check-and-balance between the executive branch and the legislative branch to function.

City Council Bill (CCB#) 12-0113 would allow the City Council to add funds to the City’s annual operating and capital budgets, as long as the City Council also approves cuts elsewhere in the budgets sufficient to pay for the additions.  The Mayor would still be free to use whatever tools are still available to her or him in trying to lobby votes on the City Council, but if a majority of the members agreed on a different set of spending priorities, that majority should not be hampered by legally needing the Board of Estimates (in essence, the Mayor) to recommend supplemental appropriations and move money around during the Council’s annual consideration of the budget.

CCB# 12-0111 would reduce the number of votes needed to overturn a Mayor’s veto from three-quarters of the members to two-thirds, in keeping with most legislative bodies.  This amendment will also eliminate a provision of the charter that has sometimes been interpreted as giving the Mayor a line-item veto.  Again, the advantage is still left to the Mayor that a supermajority is required to overturn a veto, but no other major city requires a supermajority of twelve out of fifteen members.

Speaking of fifteen members, CCB# 12-0112 reduces the size of the City Council to nine members: six single-member districts, one at-large Council President, and two at-large members.  The City Council would elect from among the two at-large members one to be the vice president and the other to be the Council’s representative on the Planning Commission.  This amendment resurrects an initiative floated at the time of the last reduction effort; as with the previous system of each person being represented by three district council members and one at-large president, this new configuration would once again provide people with four different people to call for help – one district representative and three at-large members. This amendment also corrects a serious policy error made by moving to fourteen single-member districts: having such small districts not only encourages council members to be more parochial in their thinking, it reduces their political bases to the point where the disparity between a district race and a citywide race becomes its own disincentive to run for higher office, and so reduces the possibility of turnover.

Speaking of turnover, CCB# 12-0114 would create consecutive term limits for municipal elected officials – two terms for the Mayor and other citywide elected officials, three terms for individual district members of the City Council.  The rationale for different limits is that for most council members, this is their first foray into elected office, whereas most citywide elected officials have already served two or more terms on the Council before being elected citywide.  Admittedly, the positives that would accrue from this change largely stem from the assumption that regular turnover in elected positions is a good thing.  It also assumes that the “strong mayor” system of government is sufficient to offset the increase in bureaucratic power which critics say always come with elected term limits.  Since these limits would not go into effect until the next municipal election, anyone already currently serving in municipal office would start with a clean slate at that election; these limits are not intended to unseat any specific current official, but instead to create a policy – and a civic culture – moving forward, wherein public service might be thought of as a career, but where no specific public office is treated that way.

Personally, I don’t think a “strong mayor” system is intrinsically bad; I just think the one we have now is so strong that the checks and balances needed for any democratic government to function ideally just aren’t there. These amendments strengthen the checks and balances that we as citizens often feel we need.

CCB# 12-0111, which would’ve reduced the number of votes needed to overturn a Mayor’s veto, was passed out of committee earlier in 2015; by voice vote, the majority of councilmembers voted against it at the next full Council meeting and the bill failed on 2nd reader. Two of the other three proposed charter amendments – along with two subsequent proposals of mine from earlier this spring, which would create special elections for mayoral and councilmanic vacancies – are still stuck in committee.

CCB# 12-0113 – which would allow the City Council to add funds to the City’s annual operating and capital budgets – was just voted out of committee in late March of 2016. Also just voted out of committee is CCB# 15-0479, Councilman Carl Stokes’ proposal to reconstitute the Board of Estimates to comprise only the Mayor, Comptroller, and City Council President.

For years, people have suggested removing the two appointed members of the B/E as a way of “fixing” the Board – making it “match” the Board of Public Works at the state level. They equate the Governor, Comptroller, and State Treasurer there with the Mayor, Comptroller, and Council President here, saying that it would help balance the executive and legislative branches. This isn’t entirely accurate. On the state level, the Treasurer is actually elected by the members of the General Assembly, and is – theoretically, at least – accountable to them. On the local level, the Council President is elected citywide, not by the other members of the Council, and so does not really represent the interests of the legislative branch as a whole. Taking the two appointed members of the B/E off doesn’t equalize the power dynamic between the Mayor and the City Council – it just reduces the power of the Mayor, by increasing the power of the Comptroller and the Council President.

That being said, a simple change to CCB# 15-0479 could remove only the Director of Public Works from the Board of Estimates, and add the Vice President of the City Council instead. Since the Vice President is elected by the City Council as a whole, they would represent the interests of the legislative branch on the Board. The Mayor would still have one appointee – and thus, two votes out of five – giving them an advantage in setting policy, but not an overwhelming one.

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