Mitchell loses post as head of city's tax committee

The Baltimore Sun

Three-term Baltimore City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. was ousted yesterday as chairman of the City Council's powerful Taxation and Finance Committee just days after he announced he will run for mayor.

Mitchell, who led the five-member committee for seven years, said he discovered that he would be replaced during a meeting with City Councilwoman Stephanie C. Rawlings Blake, who is expected to become the president of the City Council this month after Sheila Dixon becomes mayor next week.

Rawlings Blake denied that the decision was related to Mitchell's announcement, but Mitchell said he believed the move was politically motivated.

"It's a shame that politics came above the interests of the citizens of Baltimore," said Mitchell, who announced his mayoral intentions Jan. 5. "At least my desk isn't out on the cobblestones. At least I have an office, and my key still works."

Changes in the City Council were not unexpected given the domino effect of vacancies created by Mayor Martin O'Malley's election to governor. But the timing of Mitchell's ejection surprised several members of the City Council, where political maneuvers and intrigue are commonplace.

At the very least, the dispute is an indication that in this shortened election year - when several members of the council are seeking higher office in just nine months - virtually every decision will be scrutinized for political overtones.

"It's hard not to interpret it as political when it changes a long-standing position," said John T. Willis, a former Maryland secretary of state who teaches government and public policy at the University of Baltimore. "It's been done before and will be done again.

"When anybody becomes a candidate, suddenly their relationship changes with all of their peers," he added. "The question is, how does that play out in the dynamics of the next eight or nine months?"

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke called Mitchell's dismissal from his committee chairmanship "a great loss" to the council.

"He's done a really good job and needs to be praised for his work," she said.

Clarke praised in particular his work on a pension bill to retain police officers and firefighters that is scheduled to come before the council this month, and his work in helping to craft a plan to stave off the school system's insolvency in 2004.

"I like the fact that he helped us figure out how to save the school system from bankruptcy," she said. Clarke said she didn't know the reasons for Mitchell's dismissal but added, "I'm assuming it's politics."

Last year, Mitchell called for lowering the city's property tax rate by more than the 2-cent reduction that was ultimately approved, and he argued for eliminating the city's energy tax as the General Assembly wrestled with how to curtail a 72 percent electric rate increase proposed by BGE.

But as City Council president, Dixon had increasingly assigned the council's more contentious tax bills - including several proposals to reduce the property tax rate - to the council's Budget and Appropriations Committee, led by Rawlings Blake, where the bills were quietly shelved.

Rawlings Blake said the shifting of chairmanships has taken place because of vacancies and also because several members approached her about changing committee assignments. Mitchell's replacement, Councilwoman Helen L. Holton, is a certified public accountant, Blake noted, and has served as chairwoman of the subcommittee on economic development.

"Those things together made me feel that she would be a good fit considering the work load of the committee and her experiences. That's why the decision was made," Rawlings Blake said. "It had nothing to do with his history or his track record on the committee, and had more to do with moving forward and my vision for how the council is going to work."

Despite the awkward timing, several observers suggested that the decision to strip Mitchell of the chairmanship was much more likely based on the vagaries of council politics than with Dixon trying to punish a potential rival. Rawlings Blake has been offering deals in exchange for votes for her presidency for weeks and a common carrot leaders of all legislative bodies hold is the promise of a committee chairmanship.

Dixon said in a statement that O'Malley did not interfere with the way she ran the council during her tenure, "and I will offer the same courtesy and respect to the new council president."

Mitchell said he was offered the Judiciary and Legislative Investigation Committee but said he would probably not take it. He predicted that any investigation he launched would be perceived as an election-year ploy, given his candidacy.

Other changes are expected, including on the council's budget committee. City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. - himself rumored to be a candidate for mayor council president - had requested the chairmanship of the budget committee, but said he does not expect to get it.

"This council is going through a major transition with new leadership," Harris said. "It's very important that we in the council put people in leadership who will hold accountability. We can't be business as usual."

Asked if Mitchell's dismissal was related to his announcement that he is running for mayor, Councilman Robert W. Curran said, "I would hope it would not be."

Curran, who is expected to be elected vice president of the council when the legislative body meets Jan. 22, said he believed the move was less an effort to punish Mitchell than to reward Holton, a colleague of Rawlings Blake's from the city's old 5th District.

Curran, who represents Northeast Baltimore, also praised Mitchell's work, saying, "Keiffer's been a good chair. He's very thorough." But he added, "The committee chairs and vice chairs are at the president's prerogative."

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