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Hearing held on Baltimore’s local-hiring bill

A proposal to establish a local hiring mandate drew passionate responses Thursday during a three-hour hearing before the Baltimore City Council’s Taxation, Finance and Economic Development Committee.

Baltimore City Councilman Carl Stokes, President Bernard C. ‘Jack’ Young and Councilman Warren Branch listen to testimony Thursday during a hearing on Young’s proposed local hiring ordinance.

City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, who introduced the bill in November, insisted at the hearing that action be taken.

“We can and we must focus on creating jobs that are desperately needed,” Young said before a packed audience. “Our citizens expect us to take bold steps.”

But Baltimore City Solicitor George Nilson, whose office warned last week that the bill was unconstitutional, continued to express concerns over the measure in its current form.

“We can’t rewrite the Constitution,” Nilson said. “Our judgment is that a local hiring bill will not succeed. We will end up in litigation, and we will not win.”

Nilson said the goals of the proposed bill, under which any person who “has a contract with the City for more than $300,000” or “will benefit from more than $5,000,000 in assistance for a City subsidized project” would have to ensure that at least 51 percent of the jobs required for a project be filled by residents of the city, could be accomplished “on an administrative basis” rather than through legislation.

His office issued a supplemental report on Wednesday saying it was “unable to recommend amendments to the bill that will make it lawful,” but the department “remains committed to helping the city implement lawful initiatives to spur local hiring.”

The supplemental report reiterated specific ways to increase the hiring of city residents that may survive legal challenges, including “focusing the hiring preference on income level rather than residency in a way that satisfied the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution” and “focusing the preference on those who are unemployed or who have graduated from job training programs in a way that satisfied the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution.”

Councilman Warren Branch, however, criticized the city solicitor at the hearing for not being more proactive.

“You should be fighting to make sure [Baltimore citizens] get the jobs they need,” Branch said. “You work for this mayor who was elected by the people. The people need to get to work.”

Ryan O’Doherty, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake, said in an email after the hearing that the mayor’s office “defers to the Law Department on the serious legal issues related to the proposed bill.”

The opinion issued last week by assistant solicitors Ashlea H. Brown and Hilary B. Ruley said the current bill would violate the Constitution’s Privileges and Immunities Clause.

Brown and Ruley noted that cities like Quincy, Mass.; Worcester, Mass.; and Jersey City, N.J., have put forward local hiring laws only to have them struck down by federal judges who said the law violated the Constitution.

However, a number of other cities, including Washington and San Francisco, have passed similar legislation. Experts from both cities on Thursday encouraged Baltimore to pass a similar law.

After the hearing, Lester Davis, a spokesman for Young, said the council president plans on hosting a couple of work sessions “in the near future” to continue to iron out the legislation.