City Council approves sweeping overhaul of Baltimore government

Baltimore's next mayor might not have the power of their predecessors.

Baltimore's City Council approved a sweeping overhaul of city government Monday, authorizing two charter amendments that would strip the next 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. The measures would take away mayoral control of the Board of Estimates — which approves all spending of more than $25,000 — and grant the council power to increase spending in the city's budget.

Both bills face a veto threat from Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who is not running for re-election. The mayor has said she believes the proposed changes are not "fiscally responsible." The 15-member council would need 12 votes to override a mayoral veto.

"I expect the mayor to veto them," Young said after the vote. "I'm going to work very hard to override the veto. I think I'll be able to get the 12 votes."

The measures, as charter amendments, also would need to be approved by voters in November to become law.

The first measure, which passed 12-1, would shrink the five-member Board of Estimates to just the mayor, comptroller and City Council president. The bill, sponsored by Councilman Carl Stokes — who is running for mayor — 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.

Councilman Nick J. Mosby, who dropped out of the mayor's race last week, voted against the bill. Council members Brandon Scott and Mary Pat Clarke abstained.

A second bill sponsored by Councilman Bill Henry passed 14-1. It would allow council members to increase spending in the city budget. Currently, the council can only cut spending proposed by the mayor. By law, city budgets must be balanced.

Scott voted against the bill, arguing that the City Council doesn't have the staff necessary to properly analyze the budget in order to increase spending responsibly.

"If we are going to have that authority, we must first have the resources to make decisions for a $2 billion business, because that is what the city is essentially," he said. "We are not having that conversation and council budget and staffs currently do not have the resources to do so."

A third charter amendment, sponsored by Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, failed by a single vote. It would have transformed the council in 2024 into seven two-member districts, rather than the current 14 single-member districts.

In 2002, activists successfully placed on the ballot an initiative to shrink the City Council from 19 members to 14 single-member districts, plus the council president. That effort was opposed by then-Mayor Martin O'Malley and the City Council, but was approved by the voters.

Council members Sharon Green Middleton, Scott, Mosby, Edward Reisinger, Eric T. Costello, and Clarke voted against the measure. Henry and William "Pete" Welch abstained.

Mosby spoke against the bill, saying he feared it would lead to the creation of "slates" that would protect incumbents.

Young said he was "a little disappointed" by the bill's failure.

"I was a little shocked about that," Young said. "I think the unions and the League of Women Voters got to some of the council members for that."

The council also approved $1.2 million for an outside law firm to assist with the Department of Justice investigation into the Baltimore Police Department and authorized $6.4 million for the family of Freddie Gray, who died of injuries suffered in police custody last year.

Also Monday, Clarke introduced legislation that would increase the minimum wage in the city to $15 an hour by 2020. It has the support of a majority of council members.

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

twitter.com/lukebroadwater

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