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City charter amendments would alter ‘strong mayor’ system of government

City Councilmen Bill Henry and Kristerfer Burnett announced Wednesday that they plan to introduce a trio of charter amendments designed to reduce the power of the mayor in Baltimore.

The councilmen said they intend to submit the bills on Monday ahead of the next City Council meeting, even though it is likely the legislation will not receive a committee hearing until late next spring.

“Our system is too strong,” Henry said. “There’s simply not the level of checks and balances for democracy to operate as it should.”

Burnett is the author of a bill that would allow a vote of the City Council to remove the mayor. That provides a remedy for the city if it ever finds itself again in a situation where a mayor’s status is in doubt.

Mayor Catherine Pugh, who is on medical leave, faces a controversy sparked by the revelation that she took payments for her self-published “Healthy Holly” children’s books from entities doing business with the city.

Ex officio Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young — who was the City Council president — is running the city’s executive branch while Pugh is on leave.

One of Henry’s two bills alters the number of votes needed to override a mayor’s veto from 12 to 10 in the 15-member council.

Henry also proposes allowing the council, which can currently only cut the city budget, to move money from one budget item to another and to strip the mayor of what is essentially line-item veto power.

The three bills would not have an immediate impact on how city government works. The charter amendments, if passed by the council, must be approved by city voters. The earliest that could happen is in the November 2020 general election.

Councilman Eric Costello, chairman of the Judiciary and Legislative Investigations Committee, said he planned to hold off on hearing charter amendments until June 2020.

While a few activists have expressed displeasure with that timeframe, the councilman said he feels the amendments would create a distraction while the city is trying to stabilize itself during a challenging time.

“I look forward to being an active participant in the discussion around ways to reform City government and increase transparency. There is no doubt in my mind that we will be seeing changes to the structure of City government,” Costello wrote in an email. “That said, with matters of such significance, it is important that we take our time and ensure each of our colleagues on the Council has an opportunity to hear from and engage with their constituents on the proposed changes.”

Lester Davis, a deputy chief of staff for Young, said that Young has not weighed in for or against the charter amendments or talked to Costello about hearing schedules. All Young has said to city lawmakers, Davis said, is to urge appropriate community outreach.

Changes to government structure need to be “thoughtful and cannot be rushed,” Davis said.

The charter amendments are being packaged with three other bills, previously filed by Councilman Ryan Dorsey, as part of a legislative package to overhaul city government.

Legislation sponsored by Dorsey would appoint Baltimore’s inspector general to serve as the executive director of the city ethics board and would have the IG’s office provide staff for the board. A second bill proposes protections for whistleblowers. A final piece of legislation would strengthen required financial disclosure requirements.

Along with Henry, Burnett and Dorsey, others — including Councilman Leon Pinkett; Kobe Little, president of Baltimore’s branch of the NAACP; and Common Cause Maryland Executive Director Joanne Antoine — are expected to attend a news conference Monday at City Hall to present the package of bills.

Sen. Jill P. Carter, who pushed legislation to reform the University of Maryland Medical System’s board after it was revealed that it had paid Pugh $500,000 for her “Healthy Holly” books, is expected to attend the news conference to show her support for the proposals.

 


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