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Editorial: On counsel for the council

If the question of whether the Baltimore City Council should have its own legal counsel ends up in the hands of the city’s voters, it may prompt them to ask their own question: “Huh?”

At its best, politics benefits the electorate. Most council members — in fact, politicians in general — wish to be thought of as sensitive to taxpayers, so they try to balance the pleas for services and the demands to be frugal.

Comes now Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young with a proposal to add a lawyer to serve only the City Council. That would leave City Solicitor George A. Nilson, now counsel to both the council and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, to advise only the mayor and her administration.

Mr. Young’s opposition to the current system is that the city solicitor is hired by the mayor and thus serves the mayor’s interests, but not necessarily the City Council’s.

Mr. Nilson disagrees with Mr. Young’s argument, and although such a disagreement is not unusual in the halls of government, it does bring up a legitimate political question: Can Mr. Young make a compelling case to voters that changing the status quo will help Baltimore solve its staggering problems?

Mr. Young insists his wish for separate counsel is longstanding, with this summer’s sharp debate over the city’s mandatory local-hiring law just the latest in a long line of triggers.

In June, Mr. Nilson said the proposed local-hiring law was unconstitutional and offered several alternative approaches. Mr. Young accused Mr. Nilson of taking Mayor Rawlings-Blake’s side. The council passed its version of the bill despite the city solicitor’s warning — an open invitation to anyone who wants to challenge the law in court.

However, the fact that the City Council disagreed with the city solicitor’s advice is not grounds for hiring its own lawyer. Mr. Young should lay out for the voters why he thinks the city solicitor inadequately serves the City Council. Mr. Young should be able to show voters specific instances in which the city solicitor inappropriately stood in the way of the council’s attempts to move Baltimore forward.

He must also show why giving the City Council its own lawyer will be worth the cost.

As drafted, the measure calls for an annual salary of at least $100,000, and that doesn’t take into account the costs of benefits, a staff, outfitting an office, etc.

Nor does it take into account the unintended consequences of the proposed system. For example, would plaintiffs suing the city now have to negotiate with two city lawyers? Will the comptroller’s office, which has famously sparred with the mayor and City Council over the City Hall phone system, want its own lawyer, too?

For the moment, the only constituency Mr. Young must concern himself with is tiny. He needs to persuade a majority of his colleagues to vote for the new legal counsel, and if that is successful, he then must persuade Ms. Rawlings-Blake to sign the bill, or at least not veto it, thus sending the question to voters next year.

Eventually, he or his allies will have to make voters understand that such a separate legal counsel will benefit the city. In that regard, Young has a long way to go to move the voters from “Huh?” to “Yes.”