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Dan Rodricks

Dan Rodricks: Baltimore term limits, pensions and the city-county divide | COMMENTARY

The Baltimore County Council voted in September to raise the maximum cap on council member pensions to 70% beginning in 2023.

People who do not live in Baltimore have always engaged in cross-border opinionizing by freely offering comments about the city and how its government ought to be run.

County residents like to get into city business, and it’s good they care. I get mail all the time from readers who have much to say about the city where they work, once lived and sometimes visit. I welcome and consider their opinions, as long as they emanate from sincere desire to see Baltimore improve and not from some sick glee at the city’s struggles. The latter gets the delete key.

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But, while forming their views about the latest city problem, issue or controversy, people in the counties — Baltimore County, specifically, in today’s case — might want to look at what’s going on in their own backyards.

Consider a current hot topic: Pensions for the mayor and Baltimore City Council.

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This issue blew up during and after last month’s election when, concerned that city voters were about to impose term limits on elected officials, Council President Nick Mosby filed a bill to reduce the years council members needed to become vested in the city’s pension plan from 12 to eight.

Urged on by a campaign heavily funded by a wealthy suburban executive, Baltimoreans voted overwhelmingly to amend the city charter to limit elected officials to two four-year terms. (City ballot questions rarely fail to pass.)

In reaction, the council voted for Mosby’s bill — the vote was 8-5 with two abstentions — and that sparked an uproar and charges of self-dealing.

There has been a cascade of negative opinions about this. Mosby showed a lack of concern about the appearance of a conflict by pushing the bill and putting his colleagues in a fraught position. I get what he was thinking, but timing is everything in love, comedy and politics, and the timing of this looked really bad.

(Nobody asked me, but council members should not get to vote on their own pay increases and benefits. All of that business should be handled by independent compensation commissions.)

Fortunately, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott vetoed Mosby’s bill, but Mosby criticized him for doing so. His argument is that pensions are key to making public office attractive to future candidates. (And I bet you thought it was the desire to serve or wield power.)

The controversy has become “squeegeed,” meaning it quickly ascended to the realm where, much like the matter of squeegee guys who clean windshields in city traffic, everyone seems to have an opinion. That includes people who live outside the city.

But, in the midst of all the outrage, I feel a need to note a couple of things, particularly about the Baltimore County Council.

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The council voted in September to raise the maximum cap on its pensions from 60% to 70% beginning next year. Anyone remember howls of protest against that? Me neither.

When the measure was first proposed, the cap on pensions would have been removed completely, allowing council members to receive retirement benefits equal to their full salaries after 20 years. The bill was later changed to the 70% cap for members who served 16 or more years.

As that last fact suggests, there are no term limits on council members in Baltimore County. In March 2021, there was a proposal to have voters decide whether council members should only serve three four-year terms. Citizens would have had a chance to amend the county charter to reflect that limit.

Can you guess what happened? Here’s a hint: The county council voted to kill the bill. Well, OK, that was more than a hint. That was full exposition. But now you know, and maybe get my point. I’m not defending what the Baltimore City Council did; I’m suggesting that what the Baltimore County Council did emits a similar aroma of conflict, and yet there’s been no controversy. Why?

David Smith, the Sinclair Broadcasting executive who lives in a house with eight bathrooms in Baltimore County, put up $805,000 to support the campaign to impose term limits in the city. There would have been no Question K on the ballot without his money.

As I’ve suggested before, Smith’s interest appears to stem from his conservative political agenda — to make Baltimore’s Democratic leadership, particularly Scott, look as bad as possible and provide continuing controversy for news coverage by Sinclair’s station in Baltimore, Fox 45. I found Smith’s suspicious push for term limits reason enough to vote against Question K. I also remain a believer in elections as the best term limit: If enough voters have had enough of a certain politician, let them run the rascal out at the polls.

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But I’m in the minority on this. Other Baltimoreans were apparently in the mood for term limits. (Voters in Anne Arundel County also voted for term limits last month, though they restricted members of their county council to three four-year terms, not two.)

It’s a populist idea, perceived as a magic lozenge to make governments better, more relevant and responsive. But why in Baltimore but not Baltimore County? People in the county who think what the City Council did was outrageous should look to Towson and find a way to impose term and pension limits on their council members.

There, I said it. I suggested something that people in Baltimore County ought to do about their government. Hey now, I like cross-border opinionizing. It’s fun.


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