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Baltimore City Council considers most significant reforms since 1890s

Baltimore City Councilman Kristerfer Burnett, joined by a majority of the 15-member council, discusses his proposed charter amendment at a Monday news conference. (Adam Bednar)

Baltimore City Councilman Kristerfer Burnett, joined by a majority of the 15-member council, discusses his proposed charter amendment at a Monday news conference. (Adam Bednar)

Mayor Catherine Pugh’s legal troubles have emboldened City Council members to push for the most striking reforms to Baltimore’s government since the Progressive Era.

So far, three City Council members have tendered various bills proposing charter amendments weakening Baltimore’s strong-mayor form of government, which dates back to the city charter of 1898. Proposed changes to the current charter range from empowering the council to remove a mayor from office to increasing the council’s power in shaping the city budget.

“One thing that would happen (if the amendments pass), the deliberation of the City Council would become more substantive and meaningful than they are today,” said Mathew Crenson, professor emeritus of political science at Johns Hopkins University and author of “Baltimore: A Political History.”

A quartet of Baltimore City Council bills were introduced during the Baltimore City Council meeting on Monday night.

Most of the bills were in the works prior to the current controversy involving Pugh, who accepted roughly $800,000 in payments she received for her self-published “Healthy Holly” children’s book series.

Councilman Kristerfer Burnett’s bill asking city voters to give the council power to remove a mayor is the lone charter amendment pushed in response to Pugh’s legal woes.

Councilman Bill Henry proposes allowing the council to move money it cuts from the budget to other priorities. He also is offering a measure that would lower the number of votes needed to override a mayor’s veto from 12 to 10 in the 15-member council. Both bills have been previously introduced by Henry and failed to advance in the council.

Baltimore City Councilman Brandon Scott has proposed a charter amendment that would create the position of city administrator. (File Photo)

Baltimore City Councilman Brandon Scott has proposed a charter amendment that would create the position of city administrator. (File Photo)

Councilman Brandon Scott, however, proposes what may be the most significant change to city government. He’s submitted an amendment, which he said he’s worked on since October, to create a city administrator.

The bill creates an administrator position to handle day-to-day operations of much of city government, but shields the person in that role from politics. Under the bill the city administrator is appointed by the mayor, but cannot be fired without City Council approval. Under Scott’s proposal the administrator would not play a role in shaping the city’s budget.

There are similar positions in cities such as San Francisco, Scott said, which allow the mayor to focus on issues like policing and economic development. This is a change, he said, that leaders in the city’s business community have long wanted.

“Government is no different from any other business operation,” Scott said.

What Scott’s proposing, Crenson said, seems “a little odd” for a city the size of Baltimore. The change, as he understands the proposal, turns the mayor into a “virtual figurehead.”

“That would really be a radical change,” he said.

Baltimore government operations, however, won’t change overnight. If the City Council passes the charter amendments city voters still must approve the measures in the November 2020 general election.

Councilman Eric Costello, chairman of the Judiciary and Legislative Investigations Committee, which must provide hearings to charter amendment bills, said the legislation will not receive hearings before June 2020.

“There is no doubt in my mind that we will be seeing changes to the structure of city government,” Costello wrote in an email last week. “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.”

Baltimore’s current strong-mayor system, Crenson said, was pushed by good government reformers and adopted due to the City Council’s dysfunction, factionalism and perceived dishonesty.

“It was thought the city needed a sort of strong leader to rationalize city government and overcome council infighting,” Crenson said.

Yet the situation Baltimore currently faces, according to Crenson, is unique in the city’s more than 200 year history. It wasn’t until 2010, when Mayor Sheila Dixon resigned, that the city had a mayor convicted of, or pleaded guilty to, criminal charges while in office, he said.

Ethics standards have been toughened over the years. Mayor Howard Jackson, who held office from 1923 to 1927, awarded 30 percent of the city’s fire insurance to his own company, Crenson said, which failed to generate the outcry such an arrangement would provoke today.

“Contrary to general belief, (historically) the government of the city was hardly squeaky clean, but nothing the scale of what … Mayor Pugh (faces) have been alleged before,” Crenson said.


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One comment

  1. allpurposehomes@gmail.com

    How is it possible that the Baltimore City Council can determine what the Mayor’s limitations are when no one does what they do? The Baltimore City Council has no job description, no accountability, no schedule, and no successes. There have been no improvements made in any area of Baltimore City because of the Baltimore City Council.