Baltimore City residents will vote next week on whether to elect city officials at the same time they cast their ballots for president — but their choice could be merely symbolic.
State lawmakers passed a measure this year to align city elections with the presidential cycle, and lawyers for the General Assembly believe that law would override city residents' vote.
Opponents of the change say that legislators should revisit the issue, known as Question K, if voters reject the charter amendment.
"It would be a message to the lawmakers to reconsider what they did," said Millie Tyssowski, a leader of the League of Women Voters of Baltimore City.
The league is part of a coalition that supports moving the city's elections to the gubernatorial cycle, a schedule every other jurisdiction in Maryland follows. Other groups that want to go with the gubernatorial cycle include the NAACP and Citizens Planning and Housing Association.
The election cycle is among more than a dozen local ballot issues that city voters will weigh Nov. 6. Most of the questions are bond issues, but residents can also vote on whether the city should audit its agencies every four years, adopt a storm-water management fee or let members of minority political parties serve on city boards and commissions.
Baltimore now holds its local elections in odd-numbered years, which allows city officials to run for state or federal office without worrying about losing their local positions. The new legislation, if left as is, will give the mayor and others five-year terms because the next presidential election is in 2016.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake supported the shift, and Gov. Martin O'Malley signed it into law. Legislative analysts said it would save the city $3.7 million in 2015 because the city wouldn't have to hold an extra election that year.
Mayoral spokesman Ryan O'Doherty said it would also boost voter turnout for city elections.
Baltimore voters agreed in 1999 to move the city's general election date, but the plan was dropped after state lawmakers refused to move the city's primary.
Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham Sr., a former president of the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP, says city voter turnout has been higher in gubernatorial primaries than in presidential ones. He wants city elections aligned with gubernatorial elections.
"If the real goal is to increase turnout, why are we going with an election where we've proven that turnout is lower?" he asked. "We think it's very selfish of them."
Cheatham pointed out that if the law stands, Rawlings-Blake and City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young will be able to hold office for seven years despite having won only one election for their current positions. They gained their positions when Mayor Sheila Dixon resigned.
"It circumvents the democratic process," Cheatham said. "This doesn't serve the voters well."
Local opposition might not matter. A vote to reject the change "would not change the election date from what the state statute is," Assistant Attorney General Sandy Brantley said — though she emphasized that her office had not issued a formal opinion on the matter.
But Del. Curt Anderson, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the city's House delegation, said lawmakers would revisit the issue if Baltimoreans rejected the change.
Anderson said that when past city voter turnouts for presidential versus gubernatorial primaries are averaged out, "there really wasn't a great difference in the turnout" between the two.
According to figures provided by Cheatham, the average city voter turnout over the past two decades has been slightly more than 30 percent in gubernatorial primaries and nearly 28 percent in presidential primaries.
Another proposed city charter amendment would create a "financially self-sustaining storm water utility," which city officials say is needed to help pay for cleaning up Baltimore's badly degraded streams and harbor, and to help restore the Chesapeake Bay.
Public works officials estimate the city needs to spend more than $250 million over the next several years on projects to keep trash and pollution from washing off city streets, parking lots and roofs and into local waterways when it rains.
If Question J passes, the City Council will be tasked with adopting a stormwater fee to be paid by every private property owner in the city. Public works officials say homeowners could wind up paying an additional $40 to $80 a year on their quarterly water bills.
Fees on commercial property would be based on how much land is covered by pavement and roof, which increase the amount of rainfall that washes off the site. Commercial property owners could cut fees by reducing pavement or taking other steps to reduce storm runoff, such as planting rain gardens or green roofs.
A new state law requires Baltimore City and Maryland's nine largest counties to begin charging a stormwater remediation fee by July. The money to be raised is intended to help the city meet its obligations under the federally directed bay restoration effort to reduce polluted runoff carrying sewage, pet waste, fertilizer and dirt.
The fee is intended to provide funds to clean up Baltimore's harbor and local streams, which are now cluttered with litter and unsafe to swim in or often even to touch, especially after a heavy rain.
If voters don't approve the measure, the city still would be required to impose the fee. But in that case, city officials warn, the charges on property owners could actually be higher, because without the stormwater utility, the city would be limited in its ability to borrow money to finance the required cleanup projects.
Another measure on the ballot would require certain city agencies to be audited every four years. The City Council approved a bill to do so this year, a compromise measure because some wanted more frequent audits.
Another measure would let members of minority political parties serve on city boards and commissions as minority representatives. Independents and members of all minority political parties can now serve, but cannot fill seats required by law to be filled by members of the second largest political party. Under the charter amendment, anyone who is not a member of the majority party could fill those seats.
Voters also are being asked to approve borrowing money for institutions including the Enoch Pratt Free Library, the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, the Walters Art Museum, the Maryland Science Center and the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Baltimore Sun reporter Tim Wheeler contributed to this article.
City voters will decide whether to:
•Create a utility to manage stormwater
•Align the city election cycle with the presidential cycle
•Allow members of minority political parties to serve on city boards and commissions as minority representatives
•Require certain city agencies to be audited every four years
•Borrow money for a variety of institutions, including the Walters Art Museum and the Maryland ZooCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun