Baltimore City

Baltimore City Council fails to overturn vetoes of bills that would have weakened mayor

The City Council failed to muster enough votes Monday evening to override two mayoral vetoes, ending an attempt to topple Baltimore's "strong mayor" form of government.

Votes from 12 of 15 council members were needed to override Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's vetoes of two charter amendments. The first would have stripped mayoral control of the city spending panel. The second would have empowered the council to increase spending in the mayor's budget proposal.


On Monday, several members who previously voted for the bills did not vote in favor of overriding the vetoes. The council was four votes short on the first measure and three votes short on the second.

"This was something the council was behind, then all of a sudden today" wasn't, said Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, who supported both override attempts. "We get an opportunity to stand up, and we sit down," he said.


Both charter amendments would have taken effect only if approved by a majority of voters in November.

"I think we failed the citizens tonight," Young added.

In city government's current structure, the mayor has one vote on the five-member Board of Estimates, which approves spending of more than $25,000. But she also appoints two members who usually vote with the mayor: the city solicitor and director of public works.

One bill sought to remove those members from the board, leaving the mayor, the council president and comptroller on equal footing. The veto override failed, 8-5. The other bill gave the council spending power — currently, it can only cut spending. The override vote failed, 9-5.

Councilman James B. Kraft was out of town and did not vote. Councilman Brandon Scott abstained on the Board of Estimates vote.

Last month, the council voted 12-1 and 14-1, respectively, to pass both measures. State Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, who declared victory in last month's Democratic primary in the mayor's race, has publicly opposed the legislation.

Councilman Carl Stokes said Pugh's opposition caused some council members to decide against the bills. In both cases, Stokes — who challenged Pugh in the primary — voted to override the mayor's vetoes.

"It certainly should have gone to the voters," Stokes said.


Young said he met with Pugh about the matter and told her she was free to lobby council members.

Young said he resents criticism that he pushed the legislation because he was interested in increasing his power.

"I took insult to that," Young said. "If I wanted power, I'd have ran for mayor. It ain't about power for me."

City Councilman Eric T. Costello voted for giving the council more power over the budget. But he decided against weakening the next mayor's control of the Board of Estimates after hearing from many constituents.

"I see both sides of the argument," he said. "While the Board of Estimates is in deep need of reform, I don't know that that was the correct answer. I literally had dozens and dozens of constituents that had concerns about that bill. I tried to talk to as many people as humanly possible."

In addition to Costello, council members who had voted for the Board of Estimates bill but against the veto override were: Robert Curran, Rochelle "Rikki" Spector and Warren Branch. Members who voted for the spending bill but against the override were: Curran, Spector, Nick J. Mosby and William "Pete" Welch. Afterward, Welch asked to change his vote on the override but wasn't allowed to do so.


Pugh said she was "grateful to the City Council for sustaining the mayor's veto."

"I look to working with all the members of the council, the old and the new," she said.

Empowering the council to redirect spending would have caused sweeping changes to city government, said Matthew Crenson, professor emeritus of political science at the Johns Hopkins University.

"If the mayor has a set of programs linked to the budget but can't control the budget, it could create some serious problems for the mayor and, possibly, for the operation of the city," he said.

Crenson said he expected some council members to be reluctant to take that authority away from the mayor.

"Some members of the council probably see themselves as future mayors," he said. "They're not going to want to tie the mayor's hands."

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Rawlings-Blake argued in her veto letters that the city's charter gives the mayor primary authority and accountability for fiscal matters, while also including checks and balances that ensure transparency and provide oversight. She also said that limiting the mayor's control over the city's finances could put Baltimore's AA bond rating in jeopardy.

The president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, Donald Fry, said the city's power structure works and shouldn't be reconfigured.

"Giving the power to the City Council to move money around just results in having a lot of special interests putting pressure on the City Council, almost bypassing the mayor, and having a budget that's not consistent with the mayor's strategy," Fry said.