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City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young during a Board of Estimates meeting.
City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young during a Board of Estimates meeting. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore's City Council voted overwhelmingly Thursday for a sweeping overhaul of city government, approving two bills to strip the mayor of near-absolute power over financial matters.

The package of legislation, backed by City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, would effectively end the "strong mayor" form of government in Baltimore. It includes measures that would take away the next mayor's control of the Board of Estimates — which approves all spending of more than $25,000 — and grant the council power to add spending to the city's budget.

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The bills need one more vote for final council approval, but both face a veto threat from Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. The 15-member council would need 12 votes to override a mayoral veto.

"The mayor believes this legislation raises serious questions about our ability to manage the city in a fiscally responsible way," said Howard Libit, Rawlings-Blake's spokesman.

The measures are charter amendments, meaning they would need to be approved by the voters in November to become law. The first, which advanced on a 12-1 vote, would shrink the five-member Board of Estimates to just the mayor, comptroller and City Council president. It would remove from the panel the city solicitor and public works director, both of whom are hired by the mayor and have traditionally voted with the mayor.

"My power on the Board of Estimates is very limited," Young said. "I think because the three elected officials are held accountable, we should be the ones voting on the Board of Estimates. It's about time we let the citizens of Baltimore decide."

City Councilman Nick J. Mosby, who is running for mayor, cast the lone "no" vote. Council members Brandon Scott and Mary Pat Clarke abstained.

A second bill, which advanced unanimously, would allow council members to increase spending in the city budget. Currently, the council can only cut spending proposed by the mayor. City budgets must be balanced by law.

City Councilman Bill Henry, the bill's sponsor, said a fight with Rawlings-Blake over funding for after-school programs underscores the need for the legislation. Dozens of advocates are protesting the mayor's proposed budget for next year, which does not include $4.2 million for community and after-school programs now funded by the city. The money would pay for 2,500 children to participate in after-school programs, plus six community schools — many to help youths near the site of the rioting in West Baltimore last April.

On Thursday, council members unanimously called on the mayor to restore the funding.

"The reason we need the power articulated in this charter amendment is because of the resolution we adopted tonight," Henry said. "If it's clearly the will of the entire City Council, we should have the power to actually make those changes."

The city's finance and law departments have argued against the bills to weaken mayoral power, as has the pro-business Greater Baltimore Committee.

"The current balance of power regarding the city's budget process has served the city well over time and absent a compelling reason for changing the balance of power the current system should remain intact," Donald C. Fry, president of the organization, wrote in a letter to council members.

A third charter amendment, which passed 13-2, would transform the council into seven two-member districts in 2024 rather than the current 14 single-member districts.

Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, who sponsored the legislation, said she's served in both single-member and multi-member council districts and prefers the latter.

"If we are single-member, we might not be as global as we need to be," she said.

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Councilmen Eric T. Costello and Mosby voted against the bill. Mosby argued that multi-member districts give incumbents more power because they typically form slates.

"It artificially creates the mechanism for incumbency power," Mosby said. "We all understand the power of incumbency and the power of slates."

Libit said Rawlings-Blake has not taken a position on the measure to change to makeup of the council.

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.

In other business, Scott introduced a bill to create a municipal identification card to replace the four cards students carry now for schools, buses, libraries and other programs.

"We need to get away from issuing four different cards for our young people and just go to one ID," he said.

Councilman James B. Kraft, who is running for circuit judge, announced a hearing into water-billing problems that persist in city government.

"We have people getting bills for thousands of dollars and don't understand why," he said.

Kraft said water bills have increased recently since city government installed a new wireless meter system. For years, city residents have been dogged by inaccurate bills, and officials have promoted the new wireless system as more reliable. Kraft called on officials from the finance and public works departments to appear before his committee.

"The Council recognizes that a fair fee must be paid in order to maintain, repair, and improve the water and wastewater system throughout the City," states Kraft's resolution calling for the hearing. "However, the sudden, drastic, and incomprehensible increase in bills must be reasonably detailed for the residents to understand past and present consumption."

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