Baltimore City

Rawlings-Blake vetoes bills that would weaken future Baltimore mayors

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake vetoed sweeping legislation Friday that would fundamentally change Baltimore's "strong mayor" form of government by shifting power to the City Council and comptroller.

The council is expected vote May 16 on whether to override the vetoes. It's unclear whether the necessary 12 of 15 members will agree to do so. City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young has a "reasonable expectation" that he will have the votes, his spokesman said.


But Rawlings-Blake's staff has strongly told council members of her concerns, as has state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, who declared victory in the Democratic primary for mayor last week.

Rawlings-Blake, who did not seek re-election, is "committed to doing whatever she needs to do to express her perspective," said Anthony McCarthy, her spokesman.


The bills would take away future mayors' control of the city's spending panel and would allow the council to increase spending in a mayor's budget proposal. Under the current system, the council can cut spending but not increase it.

In a veto letter to the council, Rawlings-Blake called the proposed changes "worrisome."

The charter amendments would be detrimental because "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," Rawlings-Blake wrote.

If the vetoes are overturned, the measures — which are city charter amendments — would take effect only if approved by voters in November.

Under city government's current structure, the mayor has a vote on the five-member Board of Estimates, which approves city spending of more than $25,000. She also appoints two other members who traditionally vote with the mayor: the city solicitor and the director of public works.

The legislation would strip those members of their vote, putting the mayor, council president and comptroller on equal footing.

Young believes the near-absolute power Baltimore mayors have had over the city's finances has resulted in unequal treatment of some city residents, said Lester Davis, his spokesman.

"The best chance we're going to have at moving Baltimore City forward is to have engagement from the legislative branch in a truly participatory way," Davis said. He said one would be "hard pressed to find" concrete instances of when the strong-mayor form of government "really lifted up some of the segments of the city that have been in need for a long period of time."


Young and Pugh have spoken about their positions on the bills.

"They had a really instructive and productive conversation, and he certainly took her points to heart," Davis said. "He was also successful in sharing with her his belief in cooperative democracy and having the legislative and executive branch truly work together."

Councilman Bill Henry said he does not know whether he will support the bill to take away the mayor's power on the spending board. It's not clear whether there are enough votes to override the veto of that bill, he said.

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Henry sponsored the other charter amendment that would give the council more influence over the budget, and is working to shore up the votes to overturn Rawlings-Blake's veto. He sees that amendment as a starting point to creating a strong partnership between the city's legislative and executive branches.

"I would like to see us make the strong-mayor form of government operate more fairly and equitably," Henry said. "Some changes need to be made to increase the balance of power between the council and the mayor in favor of the council."

Rawlings-Blake argued in her veto letters that the city's charter gives the mayor primary authority and accountability for fiscal matters, while also including checks and balances that ensure transparency and provide oversight. She also noted that limiting the mayor's control over the city's finances could put Baltimore's AA bond rating in jeopardy.


"Baltimore's fiscal governance structure is one reason that, despite decades of population loss and economic struggle, the city has not gone into default, receivership or bankruptcy like New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., Cleveland, and Detroit," Rawlings-Blake wrote.

A third charter amendment considered by the council failed last month. The legislation would have created seven two-member districts on the council, instead of the current 14 single-member district. The 15th member, the council president, is an at-large position.