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Mayor Pugh to form commission to review Baltimore city charter

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh plans to create a special commission to review the city’s charter for the first time in almost a quarter century, and craft a package of changes for voters to consider at the ballot box in November.

The charter functions as the city’s constitution: It establishes the powers of the mayor and the city council and outlines the responsibilities of local agencies.

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Matt Garbark, Pugh’s deputy chief of staff, said the mayor decided to carry out the review after repeatedly hearing a common complaint: “It’s hard to do business with the city, it’s hard to do contracting and procurement.”

Pugh’s team thinks the charter could be part of the problem because it is loaded with unnecessary provisions and should be simplified.“

There are some provisions that are really just outdated,” Garbark said.

One example Garbark cited is a provision requiring a specified official time that is now out of step with changes in Daylight Savings Time. He also said the charter doesn’t take into account advances in electronic communication. And a section on record keeping has been superseded by state law, creating confusion.

Pugh is expected to name the members of the commission next week. Garbark said it will include between 50 and 60 people drawn from business, the legal profession, academia and charitable organizations.

Roger Hartley, the dean of the College of Public Affairs at the University of Baltimore, said he and a colleague have both been invited to join the panel.

While the commission could theoretically suggest a significant overhaul of how the city is governed, Garbark said officials want to keep the review more limited.

“We wanted it to be a manageable discussion and not something that just goes into an extreme like a Pandora’s box,” he said.

Lester Davis, a spokesman for City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, said the council would be represented on the panel.

“The council president is certainly looking forward to taking a look and seeing what best practices are,” he said. “It’ll be a collaborative process.”

The charter is an extensive document. The official copy is 220 pages long and consists of 83,000 words. The U.S. Constitution and its 27 amendments are less than 8,000 words long.

The city charter was last comprehensively revised in 1994 when voters approved giving the mayor a role in picking the school superintendent and opened the door to changing the structure of the city council.

Voters have taken up several amendments since then. In 2016, six charter amendments were approved, including ones creating affordable housing and youth funds.

Other jurisdictions in the region have reviewed their charters in recent years. In Baltimore County the commission proposed only minor changes, and in Howard County a commission proposed enlarging the county council but ultimately dropped the idea.

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