Baltimore's Question G: 'a very bad idea'

Baltimoreans will have the opportunity in the upcoming election to vote on a bundle of bond issues and amendments to the Maryland Constitution and the Baltimore City Charter. Notwithstanding their importance, these issues are buried, as always, at the bottom of the ballot where they form a sort of subterranean garden of governance. People usually vote on them with little or no understanding.

That would be especially unfortunate this year: There’s a snake in the garden. It is Question G.

An affirmative vote on Question G adopts a City Council resolution that would amend the city’s charter to eviscerate the Department of Legislative Reference — a century old bastion of professional, bi-partisan scholarship — and put it in the hands of politicians. That is a very bad idea.

The Department of Legislative Reference was created in 1906. It prepares the ordinances to be voted upon by the City Council, administers the city’s ethics law, supervises revisions of the Baltimore City Code, maintains the city’s archives and performs sundry other archival chores.

It has been led by extraordinarily able directors, including its current director, Avery Aisenstark, a brilliant legal scholar and technician who has held the post since 1996. And it is supervised by a board composed of the mayor, the city solicitor, the president of Johns Hopkins University, the deans of both law schools in Baltimore and the director of the Enoch Pratt Library.

Question G would dismantle this board and replace it with an ad hoc board appointed by the mayor, the president of the City Council and the comptroller. By destroying the board’s independence, Question G also undermines a chief function of the department: serving as a constraint on the introduction and passage of ordinances that may have the appearance of being salutary but are inconsistent with other laws or the principles of good government.

Question G would also destroy the independence of the department’s director. The director has always been removable only for incompetence or neglect of duty, a protection made even stronger because that standard had to be applied by an independent board. But Question G explicitly states that one of the purposes of the proposed charter amendment is to enable the mayor and president of the city council to remove the director for any reason. The director, who would also lose civil service status, would, in short, now serve at the unchecked pleasure of these political figures.

The immediate burden of this proposed status downgrade falls on Avery Aisenstark.

The highly professional, predominately apolitical board that appointed Mr. Aisenstark 22 years ago recognized his extraordinary credentials. He graduated first in his class at the University of Maryland School of Law. He served with distinction as an assistant legislative officer to Maryland’s governor. He was a director of the State Code Revision Commission. He served as chief counsel for opinions and advice for Maryland’s attorney general. He has been counsel to the city public school system.

Mr. Aisenstark’s service as director has been exemplary. Among many other achievements, he personally undertook the recodification and publication of the first new City Code edition in almost a quarter-century; he initiated and achieved a comprehensive, in-depth revision of the city’s health and zoning codes; he created the first ever digital database for the City Charter and the City Code of Public Local Laws.

Question G raises troublesome questions.

Why the rush on the part of our City Council to strip civil service protections from an accomplished public servant of Mr. Aisenstark’s caliber and long record of service? And why subject him to termination at the will of Baltimore’s prominent politicians?

What legal scholar — knowing the professional and apolitical history of the department and the merit-based provenance of its directors — would apply for a position subject to the whim of City Hall’s politicos?

We don’t know the answers to those questions. But we do know that there are some governmental functions that should be beyond the unchecked reach of politicians. And that one of these functions is performed – professionally, not politically – by the Department of Legislative Reference.

Question G should receive a negative vote.

Stephen H. Sachs (steve.sachs@wilmerhale.com) was United States attorney for Maryland from 1967 to 1970 and state attorney general from 1979 to 1987. Shale D. Stiller (shale.stiller@dlapiper.com) is a partner in DLA Piper's Baltimore office and a longtime trustee of the Johns Hopkins University.

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