The Baltimore City Council that took office four years ago this week had a good blend of experience and youth, giving it potential to achieve things that were long overdue in a damaged city that desperately needed new ideas and fresh leadership.
The council’s new members emerged as winners of the 2016 Democratic primary and general elections from the brightest, most promising field of progressive candidates I had ever seen. Zeke Cohen, Shannon Sneed, Ryan Dorsey, Yitzy Schleifer, Leon Pinkett, Kristerfer Burnett and John Bullock all impressed me and convinced me that they might actually get something done.
And they did. In fact, this was the most productive council in my memory. (Sneed and Pinkett ran unsuccessfully this year to succeed Council President Brandon Scott — now Mayor Brandon Scott — and, unfortunately, neither will be returning to City Hall.)
The council, with some newly-elected members as able replacements for those who aren’t coming back, will be sworn in for a new four-year term on Thursday. Before that happens, I offer a review of some of its 2016-2020 accomplishments.
This is a good exercise for Baltimoreans or Baltimoreans-at-heart who have either low expectations or none at all.
If you missed some of these items, you’re excused because, in addition to the council that took office in December 2016, Baltimore had a new mayor, Catherine Pugh. Though she deserves credit for some things — a $52 million fund to support projects and businesses in neglected neighborhoods, for instance — she brought more disgrace to the city as it was trying to emerge from a period of unrest, unremitting violence and uneven leadership. A lot of what the council accomplished was likely overshadowed by the “Healthy Holly” scandal.
And crime. There’s no getting around that. The City Council can adopt all kinds of progressive ordinances and smart policies. But those actions will seem irrelevant to people if they keep hearing gunshots in their neighborhoods and fearing for their lives or those of their children.
Everybody knows that, but it needs stating.
As for my brief and random review, it starts with something that still seems shocking to those of us who always knew the council as little more than a collective rubber stamp for the mayor: Voter-approved charter amendments that gave the council more power over the city budget and made it easier for the council to override a mayoral veto. The council already has exerted that new power.
So this is not your grandmother’s City Council.
The 2016-2020 council banned landlords from discriminating against prospective tenants who want to use federal housing vouchers to pay rent. Several Maryland counties did the same, and the Maryland General Assembly has since made the ban statewide.
The council banned polystyrene foam containers for carryout food and drink.
It made the city’s inspector general independent of the mayor’s office, giving the IG more freedom and power to investigate suspected waste and corruption. This was another change in the city charter that voters approved.
The council embraced “Complete Streets” legislation requiring the city’s transportation department to provide more bike lanes, sidewalks and public transit options. You can argue almost everything the council proposes as a “quality of life” matter, but this one leads in that category, putting the emphasis on people over cars in street design.
The council mandated the licensing and inspections of all private rental housing, including one- and two-unit properties, not just the larger buildings previously covered by city ordinance.
Backed by an Abell Foundation study that found a significant fiscal benefit to doing so, the council voted to guarantee low-income tenants the right to legal counsel during an eviction. While the program would cost the city about $5.7 million, the Abell study found that the city and state sustained much higher costs in providing for families who are evicted each year.
The council finally did something about the nearly empty affordable housing trust fund. It agreed to put money into it, about $20 million a year, with part of that raised from taxes on real estate sales exceeding $1 million. Funding this trust to seed new or rehabilitated housing stock was way overdue. Too many Baltimore renters spend too much of their income on housing.
Acknowledging the city’s long experience with violent crime and its effect on children, particularly, the council passed the Elijah Cummings Healing City Act, creating a task force to train city employees in lessening the impact of trauma while performing their jobs. Even if you view it as more symbolic than practical — and in time we’ll see if and how it helps — the act addresses the desperate need for healing in a city where incessant gun violence has traumatized thousands of families.
Acknowledging a long history of racial discrimination, the council established an Equity Assistance Fund to address disparities in housing, access to education and past capital spending. Voters approved this as a charter amendment in 2018. City agencies are expected to “develop policies, practices and strategic investments to reverse disparity trends based on race, gender or income,” and to develop and implement an “equity action plan.” It remains to be seen how this plays out, too, how the fund is used, how disparities are identified and addressed.
But clearly, with these and other actions, Baltimoreans might finally have a City Council that is not satisfied with incremental progress and not willing to ignore problems. Let’s call that good and hope it continues.