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Council passes body camera bill, plastic bag ban, but veto looms

The City Council voted Monday to ban plastic grocery bags and require all of Baltimore's nearly 3,000 police officers to wear body cameras. But Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake promptly repeated her pledge to veto both bills.

"I can't sign legislation that I think sends the wrong message to our citizens and to businesses," Rawlings-Blake said. Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said he'd be shocked if he could muster the necessary votes to override the vetoes.

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Council members backed the plastic bag ban as a environmental initiative necessary to help keep the litter out of the Chesapeake Bay. But the mayor said the bill wasn't properly vetted, noting it began as legislation to charge a fee for the bags and didn't get another public hearing when amended to be a ban. The proposal would make Baltimore one of the first East Coast cities to outlaw plastic bags.

The council voted 11-1 to pass the plastic bag ban, with Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector opposed and Councilmen Brandon Scott and Pete Welch abstaining. Spector called the bag ban a "bait and switch" that lacked transparency.

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Councilman James B. Kraft, the bill's lead sponsor, balked at the idea that the bill had not had enough debate. He said his bill is the eighth version of legislation the council has been deliberating for years.

Kraft added that the "bulk" of opposition to the ban comes from the plastic and oil industry and their lobbyists. He said Rawlings-Blake's finance department supported the measure when it was a fee that would have raised $1.5 million a year for the city budget.

"I don't understand why the mayor would veto this bill," Kraft said.

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke spoke for the measure, saying residents would adjust to using paper or re-usable bags.

"We can live without plastic bags," she said.

And Councilwoman Helen Holton praised the change of the legislation from a 5-cent fee on plastic bags to an outright ban. "I'm glad to see we're not putting another burden of another fee or tax on the citizens," she said.

Rawlings-Blake said she is a proponent of pro-environment initiatives, but can't get past what she sees as a flawed process.

"It's hard for me to get to the underlying issue of whether it should be a ban or a fee because of how poorly it was handled," she said. "We can't do business like that and think that we're going to be a place where people want to invest. With a snap of a finger, the way you do business has changed [and] you weren't even given an opportunity to speak on it."

The council voted by an even larger margin — 13-1 — to pass its body camera legislation. Spector was the lone no vote, citing City Solicitor George Nilson's position that the measure is illegal.

Council members say residents have repeatedly asked them to have police wear the cameras to cut down on brutality. Councilman Warren Branch, the bill's lead sponsor, has cited questions surrounding the in-custody death last year of Tyrone West and a recent video showing an officer repeatedly punching a suspect, among other cases, as reasons for the proposed law.

Rawlings-Blake said she will launch a police body-camera program, but only after a task force she appointed has studied the issue to resolve privacy concerns and other issues. She said she will veto the council's bill because it was a rushed proposal that would waste taxpayer money on cameras for officers who don't interact with the public.

"If I am in the evidence room, I don't know many taxpayers who would believe that I should be wearing a body camera," Rawlings-Blake said. "If I am one of the hundreds of officers who has a desk job, I don't know many [taxpayers] who think that would be a good use of our resources to put a body camera on them."

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Young took offense at Rawlings-Blake's comment the bill wasn't well thought out.

"She demeaned the council in a news conference on TV," he said. "She made it sound like we're a bunch of dummies, that we don't know what we're doing."

Clarke said the council's legislation on body cameras was meant to speed up the process.

"All this council is saying is 'Do it now,'" Clarke said.

Young said he would be surprised if the 15-member City Council could muster the 12 votes necessary to override a mayoral veto of either bill.

"Personally, I don't think we have the votes to override it," Young said. "I'd be shocked."

Councilman Robert Curran voted for both measures, but said he would not vote to override the mayor's vetoes.

"I'll be supporting the mayor's prerogative to veto the legislation," he said.

In other business, the council also gave final approval to a bill banning electronic cigarette "vaping" from nearly everywhere that traditional cigarette smoking is prohibited. The mayor supports the measure and has said she will sign it into law.

The legislation is supported by public health officials but criticized by some who use e-cigarettes. These critics say the devices aren't actually cigarettes at all and therefore shouldn't be treated as such.

The council's bill, sponsored by Kraft, contains a significant amendment that allows bars and restaurants to opt out of the ban if they post prominent signs on their entrances and menus informing potential customers. Under the legislation, e-cigarettes are banned from inside any other city business, except those where vaping is the primary source of commerce — and except the city's casino.

Before passage Monday night, Kraft amended the bill to allow vaping at the Baltimore Horseshoe Casino. It passed 12-2 with Clarke and Holton opposed.

Clarke said earlier she doesn't want the casino getting special treatment. "They've got half of our police force down there on my dime," Clarke said. 'I'm saying, 'No,' they don't need to have some special dispensation."

But Young said banning vaping at Baltimore's casino would "put them a disadvantage" in an ongoing competition with the Maryland Live casino in Anne Arundel County.

Gregory Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, issued a statement Monday evening criticizing the bill.

"Business owners should retain the right to allow or prohibit vaping in their establishment, especially given that e-cigarettes have not been shown to pose any appreciable risk to bystanders," he said. "For that reason, we are disappointed that the city chose to enact this ban."

Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.

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