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In final meeting of term, Baltimore City Council votes to keep Columbus Day

In the final meeting of its five-year term, the departing City Council approved Baltimore's first rezoning plan in a generation and rejected an effort to rebrand Columbus Day, over objections from the audience.

The council also laid the groundwork for new municipal identification cards and banned the possession of realistic-looking toy guns.

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The next council, with eight new members joining seven veterans, is to be sworn in Thursday.

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said members disagreed on occasion but worked together to pass significant legislation, such as tax incentives to spur development in Harbor Point and Port Covington.

"Most of these council people came in and they put in the time and effort to move the city forward," Young said. "If it wasn't for them and the votes that they cast, none of these cranes would be up in the air.

"This council worked very hard ... hopefully the new council coming in will do the same thing."

Newly elected members are to be sworn in at 10 a.m. Thursday at the War Memorial. New Mayor Catherine E. Pugh is to be sworn in at 11 a.m. Tuesday.

Longtime council members Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, Robert W. Curran and Helen L. Holton are among those leaving office. The eight departing officials will take a combined 125 years of experience with them.

"I have sought to serve, always remembering those less fortunate and finding a way to balance and compromise for equity and fairness," Holton said during the nearly two-hour meeting. She served for 21 years and was the longtime chairwoman of the budget committee.

"Our best is still yet to come," she said.

In the council's final controversial act, members failed to muster enough votes to strip Christopher Columbus of his holiday. The bill to rename the day for indigenous peoples and Italian-Americans needed eight votes to pass, but the final tally was 7-6 with two members abstaining.

"There is no pride in genocide," proesters chanted from the balcony in the council chambers.

Italian-American heritage groups lobbied council members heavily to maintain the observance as Columbus Day, arguing that it was less about the Italian explorer and more about an opportunity to honor their heritage and the sacrifices made by their ancestors.

The Census Bureau has estimated 16,500 city residents are of Italian-American descent. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, daughter of Baltimore's first Italian-American mayor, Thomas D'Alesandro Jr., grew up in Little Italy.

Councilman Brandon Scott of Northeast Baltimore said he introduced the bill at the request of city school students.

Many associate Columbus — who never reached the land now known as the United States — with enslaving, brutalizing and killing the native people he encountered.

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Scott said he attempted to reach a compromise by proposing to rename the day for both indigenous peoples and Italian-Americans.

Scott said much of the opposition he heard about the bill came from outside the city. He warned that Baltimore saw the consequences during the 2015 riots of not listening to exasperated young people.

"Our city burned last year because we didn't listen to children," Scott said. "This bill, as proposed today, is a middle ground. We all have to share things. No one gets everything they want. That's not how the world operates."

Scott, who was re-elected to the council, plans to reintroduce the bill during this coming term.

Spector said the council should not take the honor from Italian-Americans, calling it "not American. It's not good for Baltimore. I would be embarrassed to take something away from people who earned it and deserve it."

Councilman Eric T. Costello also voted no. He said the matter was a federal and state issue that was best handled by officials on those levels.

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke abstained.

"Columbus Day became a rallying point for Italian-Americans," she said. "It became a chance to come together, to have parades and festivals.

"Both sides are very, very important. I need much more education."

The comprehensive rezoning plan passed without objection.

The massive plan — the first overhaul of city zoning rules since 1971 — was nearly a decade in the making. It survived controversy over an early proposal to ban the iconic Baltimore siding Formstone (it won't be banned) and a bitter dispute over regulating liquor stores.

The new rules would likely put dozens of liquor stores in residential neighborhoods out of business, as well as limit businesses that provide bail bonds and check-cashing services.

The legislation would affect fraternities, bioparks and urban farms. It promotes the reuse of abandoned buildings and tries to make communities more walkable.

Much of the Monday meeting was devoted to reminiscing.

The 71st council approved legislation that required police to wear body cameras, forced audits of more city agencies and barred employers from asking job applicants about their criminal records early in the hiring process.

The council also considered a number of high-profile bills that failed, including legislation to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour and a plan to require developers seeking public subsidies to build housing for lower-income families. The council passed a ban on plastic grocery bags, but did not have enough votes to override Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's veto.

Some of those measures are expected to surface again. The eight new council members have pledged to push a more liberal agenda.

The new members are Zeke Cohen in the 1st District, Ryan Dorsey in the 3rd District, Isaac "Yitzy" Schleifer in the 5th District, Leon F. Pinkett III in the 7th District, Kristerfer Burnett in the 8th District, John T. Bullock in the 9th District, Robert Stokes Sr. in the 12th District and Shannon Sneed in the 13th District.

Also leaving the council are Warren M. Branch, James B. Kraft, Nick J. Mosby, Carl Stokes and William "Pete" Welch, who either sought another office or lost in the Democratic primary.

City Council members make $66,000 a year. The position is considered part time, but some members regard it as a full-time job.

In other business, the council signed off on legislation to ban toys that look like working handguns and rifles. Kraft filed the bill after police shot a 14-year-old East Baltimore boy in April while holding a BB gun that resembled a semiautomatic pistol. He survived the shooting.

Owning, carrying or otherwise possessing a realistic replica gun could cost offenders $250 for a first offense.

The council also finalized plans to issue municipal ID cards. The cards are intended to help people — including immigrants and homeless people who do not have driver's licenses — to access city services.

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