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Baltimore ballot questions seek to reform city government: Sun recommendations | COMMENTARY

There’s a clear theme of government reform running through the seven charter amendments — questions E through K — proposed on Baltimore City’s general election ballot, with an eye toward balancing the power between the executive and legislative branches. Some of the proposals are no brainers, seeking to close what could be considered a loophole or bring the City Council’s practices in line with similar bodies. Some recommendations, however, give us pause. When weighing the merits of each, we kept one particular question in mind: What specific problem would this solve? The harder that is to answer, the harder you should think about your vote.

Question E: Charter review commission

This amendment would require the appointment every 10 years of a Charter Review Commission, tasked with taking a comprehensive look at the city’s charter, which governs all municipal operations, and making recommendations to the mayor and City Council for “necessary deletions, additions or revisions” after receiving public input. Participants would be appointed by the mayor, comptroller and City Council president (three each), along with the council members (one apiece).

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It was introduced as a best practice that would bring the city in line with other regions throughout the country. Indeed, Baltimore County passed a similar amendment in 2016, which led to recommended changes two years later that essentially brought the document up to date and streamlined operations: adding modern gender references, removing outdated names for various departments and relieving the county attorney from having to keep a journal of council proceedings and the county executive from having to serve on certain boards.

There’s an argument to be made that this kind of review doesn’t need to be written into the charter, but such worthwhile undertakings have a way of not happening unless they’re required. The commission would help Baltimore’s government to operate efficiently, equitably and in the present day regardless of who’s in office.

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Recommendation: Vote for the amendment

Question F: Ordinance of estimates

This amendment would allow the City Council to increase or add new spending to the city budget. Currently, it’s up to the mayor to initiate spending, though City Council members can reduce it. As tends to happen, more people with the power to spend typically means more spending, and not necessarily the smartest kind. More like the you-scratch-my-back-and-I-scratch-yours variety as lawmakers try to get their pet projects from their individual districts advanced. Council members already have the power to pressure mayors to spend more through negotiation. The council can, for example, threaten to cut a mayoral priority unless he or she agrees to fund a council priority. It’s routine — and doesn’t jeopardize the city’s bond rating. The budget buck should stop with Baltimore’s mayor.

Recommendation: Vote against the amendment

Question G: Vetoes

Let’s start by pointing out that the question printed on your ballot contains two parts, only one of which matters. Why? The second part, which would have ended the mayor’s power to use a line-item veto in the city budget, isn’t supposed to be there. The City Council ultimately struck that language, though it still, inexplicably, appeared on the ballot. City voters have an insert in their ballot package explaining that a mistake has been made.

So, what is this question about? It would reduce the number of votes needed by City Council members to override a mayoral veto, dropping to two-thirds, or 10 of 15 members, from three-fourths, or 12 members. The three-fourths rule is too high a hurdle and makes the override option largely unusable. Bringing it down to two-thirds — the same threshold used by Congress and tougher than the General Assembly’s three-fifths' override requirement — gives this important check on the executive some teeth, while still requiring a significant number of council votes to avoid abuse.

Recommendation: Vote for the amendment.

Question H: Veto timing

City Council President Brandon Scott says members call this the “fight for 15 loophole,” referencing the 2017 effort to raise Baltimore’s minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2022, which was vetoed by then-Mayor Catherine Pugh. The city’s charter, then and now, requires council members to override a veto, if that’s their intent, between five and 20 days after a mayor returns the legislation with written objections. If no meeting is scheduled during that period, they must convene a special session.

City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke was the lead sponsor on the “Fight for $15 bill,” which had the support of 12 council members. She tried, but failed, to get the required approval to convene a special override session. Regardless of how you feel about that particular bill — or the reality that an override was unlikely if Councilwoman Clarke couldn’t even get the support necessary for a special session — the requirement is an extra step that makes little sense. If an override is going to fail, it should fail because of the vote, not because members couldn’t take the vote.

Recommendation: Vote for the amendment.

Question I: Removal of elected officials

Speaking of former Mayor Catherine Pugh, she represents the kind of problem this charter amendment solves. It would allow the City Council to, by a three-fourths vote, remove a council member, council president, comptroller or mayor “for incompetency, misconduct in office, willful neglect of duty or felony or misdemeanor in office.” As it stands, it’s near impossible to remove a mayor from office short of a criminal conviction — a clear problem we saw last year as calls mounted for Ms. Pugh to resign in the early days of the Healthy Holly scandal, yet she insisted upon a return when her health would allow it. While she eventually changed her mind, such a resumption of duty could have led to gridlock in government if the City Council rejected her authority, or cost taxpayers if she remained on leave.

Recommendation: Vote for the amendment.

Question J: City auditor

This amendment would require the city auditor to give copies of agency audits to the agencies that were audited, which certainly seems appropriate, and it would give the position-holder the ability to issue subpoenas — enforceable in court — to city officers or employees or those receiving city funds for information related to the audit. That last part would bring transparency to the process and give the auditor the power to do the job right.

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Recommendation: Vote for the amendment.

Question K: City administrator

This amendment seeks to establish the position of “city administrator” in Baltimore, akin to the chief operating officer, where the mayor is the chief executive officer. It has caused considerable consternation. Former mayors have condemned the idea as a weakening of the office and abdication of responsibility. Meanwhile, Council President Scott, who’s also the Democratic mayoral nominee, claims it will help streamline operations and bring professionalism to city government. We tend to agree. While we don’t want a weak mayoral system, the city has much to gain from a renewed focus on delivering government services more efficiently and effectively. But there’s nothing stopping the next mayor, be it Mr. Scott or someone else, from creating and filling just such a position; there’s no need to write it into the charter as a requirement. Who knows what bright ideas mayors decades from now will have about proper management? They should be able to carry them out accordingly without having to also fill a city administrator position.

Recommendation: Vote against the amendment.

Questions A through D: Bond issues

There’s a discussion to be had at some point in the future about whether Baltimore is making the most of its capital investments, but that’s a matter for another day. These four bond issues represent routine borrowing for the city’s priorities: $12 million for affordable housing; $38 million for school construction and renovation; $38 million for economic and community development; and $72 million for public infrastructure, including roads, bridges and information technology. Baltimore has an AA or AA- bond rating from the major rating agencies, which indicates strong fiscal management and the ability to repay debts. All should pass.

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Recommendation: Vote for bond issues A, B, C and D

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The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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