Baltimore activists say they're launching a campaign to vote down a change to the city charter that would push local elections back one year — effectively giving MayorStephanie Rawlings-Blakeand others an extra year in office.
"Once voters realize they're adding an extra year for themselves, they're going to vote it down," said Hassan Giordano, who — along with civil rights leader Marvin "Doc" Cheatham, members of the League of Women Voters and State Del. Jill Carter — is heading the Baltimore Election Group.
Giordano, the group's chairman, said members will make the issue the center of a heated political campaign and will stress the City Council's recent vote against shifting funding toward endangered rec centers to community groups. "The community associations are up in arms," he said. "There's no way in the world we're giving them five years."
The City Council approved the change to the city's charter last week, and Rawlings-Blake says she intends to sign the bill granting the election year change, putting it on the November ballot for a vote — but there's a catch.
The Maryland General Assembly has already passed a bill giving city officials an extra year, and the Maryland attorney general's office says no matter what voters decide, the state legislation would likely trump voters' decision.
If city voters approve the change, it would make city and state law consistent. If it is rejected, that could set up a conflict that Assistant Attorney General Sandy Brantley believes the state would win.
"If the voters reject the amendment, we don't think the legislation would be nullified," said Brantley. "It would stand."
Brantley noted, however, that there has been no official attorney general's opinion on the matter; her office could still weigh in with further clarification.
In April, the General Assembly approved moving city elections to the presidential cycle instead of the gubernatorial cycle — which is two years earlier.
Supporters said the measure, which moves the next citywide election to November 2016, could boost turnout and save money.
The nonpartisan Department of Legislative Services said the change will save the city $3.7 million in the 2016 election because it won't have to run its own vote. The state would save about $270,000.
Rawlings-Blake's spokesman, Ryan O'Doherty, said the move is meant to bolster voter turnout, which was historically low last year.
"Aligning the city cycle with the presidential cycle, as was recently approved by the General Assembly, saves taxpayer money and could increase voter turnout in city elections going forward," he said. "Some may support keeping the status quo, the mayor certainly doesn't."
He noted that in 1999 city voters approved changing to a presidential cycle, but the General Assembly refused to move the primary, which led the city to eventually abandon the change.
The shift means that Rawlings-Blake and Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young— who came into their positions after Mayor Sheila Dixon's resignation and served two years before being elected — will hold office for seven years, while only having to win one election.
The Baltimore Election Change Coalition, a group of community and civil rights organizations, had advocated for a change that would put city officials up for election during the gubernatorial cycle like other Maryland jurisdictions. They said moving to that cycle would also save money, without granting elected officials an extra year.
Millie Tyssowski, the group's president and a member of the new coalition, said her group studied voter turnout for the past 20 years and found Baltimoreans cast more ballots in the governor's race than the presidential race. She said representatives from the mayor's office were the only speakers in favor of the presidential cycle before the General Assembly.
Even if the vote carries no legal weight, Tyssowski said a defeat at the polls could be a symbolic rebuke of the change — enough to convince the General Assembly to change course.
"The hope is it would be a symbol to the Maryland General Assembly to rescind what they did this year," she said.
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