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Baltimore City Council seeks its own counsel

On the same day the Baltimore City Council passed a mandatory local hiring law that the city solicitor deemed unconstitutional, its leader introduced legislation that would let the council hire its own lawyer at a cost of $100,000.

City Solicitor George A. Nilson denied basing his opinions or advice on his status as a mayoral appointee. ‘It hasn’t happened,’ he says.

City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, who sponsored both bills, said the proposal to hire an attorney for the council came in response to the repeated warnings about the hiring preference bill by City Solicitor George A. Nilson, a mayoral appointee.

“The city solicitor works for the mayor,” Young said in an interview Tuesday, the day after his measure was introduced. “Everyone knows that. In my opinion, the Law Department is the mayor’s law department. It’s not the City Council’s law department. We would get legal advice that is not one-sided. That is why I am going to look at getting … our own legal counsel.”

Nilson, however, said Young just wants to have a lawyer “he controls” and that it is “really a bad idea.”

“There is almost an implication that somehow because the city solicitor works for the mayor the city solicitor’s office tries to please the mayor and not the City Council,” he said. “When did this happen? When did the city solicitor render an opinion because the city solicitor was appointed by and serves at the pleasure of the mayor? It hasn’t happened.”

City Council President Bernard C. ‘Jack’ Young said the city solicitor’s opposition to a local-hiring mandate prompted his bill to hire a separate attorney for the council. ‘The city solicitor works for the mayor,’ Young says. ‘Everyone knows that.’

But Matthew Crenson, professor emeritus in the Johns Hopkins University’s political science department who specializes in urban government and American political development, said Young has a point.

“The city Law Department is appointed by the mayor,” Crenson said Thursday. “Clearly they don’t want to get advice by the mayor’s attorney because the council may not want to get this biased advice.”

The council president has wanted an independent attorney for the council for the past couple of years if not longer, according to Lester Davis, Young’s spokesman; the disagreement over the local hiring bill just brought matters to a head.

“Jack would still have felt that the City Council needed legal advice, but [the disagreement over the local hiring law] happened and it prompted [Young] to say ‘let’s do this now,’” Davis said. “The experiences with the local hiring bill crystallized the need.”

Davis said the money for the attorney would come from the city’s general fund.

Other cities have attorneys for the City Council, including Knoxville, Tenn., and Alexandria, Va.

Nilson said he and Young met about a year and a half ago to discuss providing a dedicated lawyer from the Law Department for the City Council. Nilson said Young would have a role in the hiring and firing of that person.

“I would be open to something like that,” he said. “We just need to work out an understanding.”

But Davis said the council wants an independent attorney, “not a situation where the city solicitor is in charge of hiring.”

“The City Council president is looking for a completely independent counsel,” Davis said. “That is not something the president believes would fit the letter and spirit of having an independent counsel.”

Nilson has said the local hiring legislation violates the Constitution’s Privileges and Immunities Clause, and that the goals of the bill — under which any person or entity who “has a contract with the city for more than $300,000” or “will benefit from more than $5 million 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.

In every single case in which a plaintiff has raised a Privileges and Immunities challenge in court to similar laws, Nilson said, the law has been overturned.

“The litigation will be a mess,” he has said. “We will ultimately lose, and it will cost us time and money to litigate.”

The Greater Baltimore Committee also urged the council not to pass what private-sector leaders say is well-intentioned but flawed legislation, Donald C. Fry, the organization’s president and CEO, said in a statement issued last month.

A spokesman for Rawlings-Blake said in an email after Monday’s meeting that the mayor will allow local hiring law to take effect but will not explicitly sign it into law.

“Mayor Rawlings-Blake respects the will of the City Council and its good intentions on this piece of legislation and will allow it to become law,” the spokesman, Ryan O’Doherty, said. “However, due to the significant concerns raised by the Law Department and job creators in the business community, she will not sign the bill.”

By not signing the bill, the mayor delays its enactment by about a month. Barring a successful legal challenge, it will take effect six months after that.

O’Doherty said the mayor “has instructed the Law Department to prepare for possible litigation related to this ordinance while city agencies work to comply with its provisions.”

Young said he was disappointed that the mayor was not going to sign the law.

“I feel it would send a stronger message if the mayor would sign it,” he said.