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Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake talks about the city Board of Estimates' agreement to pay a $6.4 million settlement to the family of Freddie Gray. The mayor currently controls the spending panel, but that would change under legislation being considered by the City Council.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake talks about the city Board of Estimates' agreement to pay a $6.4 million settlement to the family of Freddie Gray. The mayor currently controls the spending panel, but that would change under legislation being considered by the City Council. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

In a surprise move, a City Council committee unanimously approved legislation Tuesday that would effectively end the "strong mayor" form of government in Baltimore.

The committee, at the behest of Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young and others, revived long-dormant legislation that would give the council president and city comptroller nearly equal power to the mayor on budget, staffing and contracting decisions. It would do that by stripping the next mayor of control of the city's Board of Estimates, which approves all spending of more than $25,000.

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The move, supporters say, would balance the influence of the branches of government. But critics say it is a rushed effort to grab more power for Young and Comptroller Joan M. Pratt before a new mayor can be elected.

"Many believe the mayor has too much power, and, on the surface, this looks good," said Nina Therese Kasniunas, an assistant professor of political science at Goucher College. "But I don't think it's a good thing if it's rushed, if it changes the rules in the middle of the game."

Twenty-nine candidates are competing in the race for mayor, including 13 in the hotly contested Democratic primary April 26. Young and Pratt, meanwhile, each face just one Democratic challenger and enjoy large fundraising advantages in their contests.

If approved by the full council, the measure would go to city voters in November, at the same time they will elect a new mayor.

"It wouldn't hurt anything," Young said Tuesday, responding to objections from the city's Finance Department during the committee hearing. "It would mean all three of us work together."

The bill was among three measures the committee approved Tuesday that would radically transform city government. The panel also approved a bill that would allow council members to increase spending in the city budget; currently, the council can only cut spending proposed by the mayor. And the committee approved legislation that would transform the council into seven, two-member districts in 2024 rather than the current 14 single-member districts.

All three bills are charter amendments that would become law if voters approve them in November.

Howard Libit, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, said she plans to veto the two bills aimed at weakening future mayors' powers, even though they would not affect her.

He said the bills represent a major threat to the city's financial health.

"The mayor is focused on what's right for the long-term health of the city," Libit said. "She believes both of these charter amendments ... are major risks to the long-term fiscal solvency of the city."

Council members would need 12 of 15 votes to override a mayoral veto.

Councilman Carl Stokes, a candidate for mayor, is the author of the legislation to weaken the mayor's control of the Board of Estimates. The five-member panel — which is in charge of the budget, salaries, collective bargaining and all significant city spending — is controlled by the mayor through her vote and those of her two appointees to the board, the city solicitor and the director of public works.

The legislation would strip those appointees of their votes, leaving just the mayor, comptroller and council president on the panel. The council's Judiciary and Legislative Investigations Committee approved the bill, 5-0.

Stokes said the bill was killed in committee last year. But he was encouraged recently when Young and Councilman James B. Kraft began pushing for the bill's revival.

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"The framers of the Constitution wanted us to have a very Democratic government," Stokes said. "To weigh one branch of government so heavily over the others is almost anti-Democratic and anti-American. There ought to be a better balance."

The city's Finance and Law departments argued against the measure at Tuesday's hearing, as did the pro-business Greater Baltimore Committee.

City budget chief Andrew W. Kleine said the bill could damage the city's bond rating and would "certainly raise red flags."

"In this arrangement, the fiscal soundness of the city's budgets would be decided by political alliances, power plays and egos among three independently elected officials — a dangerous scenario," he wrote. "Furthermore, neither the City Council president nor the comptroller have the professional fiscal staff necessary to formulate (or reformulate) a budget."

Elena R. DiPietro, the city's chief solicitor, argued that the change could lead to a "less efficient, less financially stable and more costly government."

Councilman Brandon M. Scott, who is not on the committee, said he supports a compromise — replacing the public works director on the board with the council's vice president. The council vice president is elected by fellow council members.

"I believe there are strong merits in changing the Board of Estimates structure but don't believe the current proposal is best to do so," Scott said. "Council members outside of the president are often chastised for decisions of the board that they have no involvement in."

The council vice president could help give council members a voice on the board, he argued.

Councilman Robert Curran said he plans to vote for the charter amendment because Young supports it. "If the mayor vetoes it, then that might be a different story," Curran said.

Councilman Bill Henry proposed the legislation to allow council members to increase city spending. He said his intent is not to do away with the city's "strong mayor" system, but to empower the council.

Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector sponsored the legislation to return the City Council to multimember districts — a system the city moved away from in 2002.

"I've never been in favor of single-member districts," she said. "The council becomes so balkanized. It has made the council single-minded. We have not faced the issues in a global way."

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.

Whatever ends up on the ballot, Kasniunas said a public education campaign will be necessary so that residents understand the issues on which they are voting.

"Frankly, if this passes the City Council, there needs to be a lot of education and deliberation before the November election," she said.

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