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A 2018 agenda for the Baltimore City Council

Last year, the election of eight young, energetic and progressive leaders remade Baltimore’s City Council. From fighting for school and youth program dollars, to actively engaging in code enforcement, to passing legislation that favors people over cars, this new crop of council members is already leaving the old guard of Baltimore politicians in the dust.Here are five steps they should take in 2018 to continue to deliver on their promise of change:

  1. Resuscitate CitiStat. Launched under the O’Malley administration, the data-driven accountability agency reduced crime, cut worker absenteeism and improved snow removal services. But CitiStat languishes in inactivity in Baltimore, while similar programs in other jurisdictions flourish. The mayor has taken a first step by hiring a new director. The council must ensure that director pulls the program out of limbo and expands it. The Judiciary and Legislative Investigations Committee (or another appropriate committee) should hold monthly hearings on how CitiStat is progressing and how the council can best support its work.
  2. Pass an inclusionary housing law with teeth. Baltimore City’s inclusionary housing law is an utter failure; only a few dozen affordable units have been built on its watch. Over the summer, Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young tapped Councilman John Bullock to head a task force to improve the law and develop a broader affordable housing strategy. After long delay, the City Council adopted a resolution to establish this task force. Now they must meet promptly, the city must fund an inclusionary housing study, and the Housing and Urban Affairs Committee must propose effective legislation that is passed and signed into law. Finally, the council should thoughtfully and swiftly consider Councilman Bill Henry’s proposed increase on property sales and transfer taxes to fund the affordable housing trust fund created by a 2016 voter-passed charter amendment.
  3. Support complete streets. Complete streets is the practice of designing streets for everyone, not just automobiles. In July, Councilman Ryan Dorsey introduced complete streets legislation, but the bill is still awaiting review by city agencies. The Land Use and Transportation Committee must work with the Department of Transportation and other relevant agencies to speed up this review and get the votes necessary to move the bill to the City Council floor.
  4. Get the trash out of Baltimore’s trees. Previous Baltimore City Council members considered legislation to regulate the use of plastic bags. These bills catered to the paper bag industry and failed to protect independent grocery stores from being overburdened by the legislation. Fewer than 1 percent of plastic bags are recycled. They end up in the trees of Patterson Park, the streets of West Baltimore, and in the Chesapeake Bay and other waterways where they clog storm drains, kill animals and destroy our environment. Places as close as Washington, D.C., and as far as China have regulated or banned bags. The new council should catch up and craft legislation that balances the interests of independent grocers and the environment.
  5. Require transparency and community benefits for development incentives. There is a general sentiment among the non-waterfront public that many of the city’s economic development deals are giveaways. But arguments deriding economic development as incompatible with community interests have become exhausting, and suggesting Baltimore just say no to opportunities like Amazon HQ2 is unrealistic. Incentives are necessary to move some development projects forward. Legislation should be enacted that mandates a community benefits process focusing on affordable housing and local hiring for large development incentives. With these protections and with long-term investments in education and job training, existing residents across all neighborhoods could benefit when large corporations choose to invest in Baltimore City.

These proposals are not exhaustive. They represent opportunities for this new cohort of legislators to show that local government can fight inequality, improve government accountability and protect the environment — even when state and federal governments move in the opposite direction. They require problem solving, compromise and political will — skills this council has shown they possess. We urge them to continue their bold leadership in 2018.

Michael Snidal (mjs2267@columbia.edu) is a teaching fellow and doctoral candidate in urban planning at Columbia University, and president of Citizens Planning and Housing Association in Baltimore, where Gregory Friedman (gregf@cphabaltimore.org) is a community engagement associate.

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