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City Council revives bills aimed at weakening mayor's power

City Council revives bills aimed at weakening mayor's power
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake addresses the President's Task Force on 21 Century Policing at the Newseum in Washington, Tuesday. (Cliff Owen / Associated Press)

Members of the Baltimore City Council are taking aim at the mayor's power.

Several council members are pushing legislation that would weaken the mayor. The moves come amid growing acrimony at City Hall after Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake vetoed two high-profile bills that passed the council overwhelmingly.

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One bill would make it easier for the council to override a mayoral veto. A second would place term limits on the mayor and other city officials. A third would strip the mayor of control of the Board of Estimates, a powerful body that approves big-ticket spending measures.

All three measures would need to be ratified by voters in the 2016 election.

"The mayor has decided to govern by veto recently," Councilman James B. Kraft said. "We're getting a lot of frustration from people who are asking, 'What's the role of the council?' We're asking for more of a partnership, but we don't seem to be getting it. We need a strong mayor system, but it doesn't have to be as strong as it is."

Kevin Harris, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, said the council legislation is misguided.

In her five years as mayor, Rawlings-Blake has signed into law 667 pieces of legislation and vetoed just three bills, he said.

"This is a solution in search of a problem," Harris said. He said the council members should focus instead on real problems the city faces, including a lack of recreational opportunities for youths.

Last year, Rawlings-Blake proposed raising up to $60 million by selling four of the city's downtown parking garages, pledging to use the money for improved recreation centers. The council has yet to take up that matter, Harris said.

"There are honest-to-God problems out there, where the council could be active," Harris said. "There's real legislation languishing that would have a real impact on children's lives. They have not taken one step to pass it."

Rawlings-Blake would veto any of the bills aimed at weakening mayoral power, Harris said.

Twelve of 15 council members would need to join together to override the mayor's veto — a threshold that has proved difficult to achieve in the past.

Councilman Bill Henry introduced two measures in 2012 that would have limited the mayor's power, but they didn't get a hearing.

One would have reduced the number of council votes needed to override a mayoral veto from three-fourths to two-thirds of the body. That bill will get a hearing in Kraft's committee Tuesday.

The second would have imposed term limits on the city's elected officials; there are none now. Under the bill, the mayor, City Council president and comptroller would be limited to two four-year terms and council members to three terms. That bill will be heard next month, Kraft said.

"I put those charter amendments in years ago to see whether there was any interest in looking at the structure of our government," Henry said. "I think about how government works in a philosophical, academic and objective way."

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But the proposals didn't draw much interest two years ago, Henry said. "Then the mayor vetoed two bills, and it became more immediately relevant to other council people," he said.

In December, Rawlings-Blake vetoed two bills that passed the council overwhelmingly — one that would have barred most merchants from distributing plastic bags and a second that would have required Baltimore police officers to wear body cameras.

Rawlings-Blake has said she supports having officers wear body cameras but insisted that the council's legislation was flawed. She said she had reservations about the plastic-bag policy and the way the council made last-minute changes to the bill, which was sponsored by Kraft.

In August, Rawlings-Blake used her first-ever mayoral veto on another piece of legislation sponsored by Kraft aimed a reducing or eliminating some of the so-called "minor privilege" fees. Residents and businesses must pay the fees when awnings protrude from buildings, for instance, or bike racks are placed on a sidewalk.

The mayor said at the time that she was working on a plan to reform the fees.

Henry said the vetoes — and the council's inability to override them — underscored to many the extent of the mayor's powers under the current system.

"We have a strong mayor system of government in Baltimore City, but only government geeks are really aware of how strong it is compared with other cities in America," he said.

Kraft said his staff surveyed 82 other jurisdictions and found only two others — Nashville, Tenn., and El Paso, Texas — that require a three-fourths legislative vote to override an executive veto.

Congress uses a two-thirds threshold, while the General Assembly requires only three-fifths of votes.

Kraft said he's also planning a charter amendment that would reduce the size of the Board of Estimates from five members — of which the mayor controls three votes — to three members: the mayor, comptroller and council president. He said that bill should be introduced in February.

Nina Therese Kasniunas, an assistant professor of political science at Goucher College, said the council proposals may be "symbolic."

"They can convey to the citizens in their districts that they're not taking the vetoes sitting down, when in reality there is very little they can do, because they have very little power," she said.

Kasniunas called Baltimore's form of strong mayor government an "outlier" nationally.

"It's one of the strongest mayoralties in the country," she said. "That could be a good thing. You might have a mayor with a really strong vision that can implement that vision without the politics that manifest in a city council. But maybe that person doesn't really have a vision?"

The structure of Baltimore's government was changed substantially in 2002 when activists successfully placed on the ballot an initiative to shrink the City Council from 19 members to 15 in single-member districts. That effort was opposed by then-Mayor Martin O'Malley and the City Council, but it was approved by the voters.

Henry said he's not sure the latest proposals can pass without a similar activist effort.

"I didn't expect the bills to pass when I put them in," he said. "It would never be expected for an executive to purposefully relinquish power. I put them in to start a conversation. It did start a conversation. Maybe enough has changed in the last two years that it can be more than just a conversation?"

Twitter.com/lukebroadwater

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