Isabel Mercedes Cumming is the new Inspector General of Baltimore City. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun video)
At some point, whether they trek to the polls during the early voting period or wait until Election Day on Nov. 6, Baltimore voters are going to encounter something of a roadblock on their ballot. It’s the word, “inalienability.” It’s a legal term rarely used around the average dinner table. It refers to something that can’t be bought or sold. But there it will be — holding a prominent spot on Page 4 of the city ballot — defying non-lawyers to fathom its meaning.
Here’s what city voters will need to know. The word pops up on Question E, a charter amendment that would prevent future mayors and City Councils from selling off Baltimore’s water and sewer system without approval from voters. It’s a pretty straightforward matter that deserved to be explained in more plain English terms. But the proposal is also absolutely worthwhile. Privatization is something of a trend nationwide, but it’s a worrisome practice. Jurisdictions might be tempted to sell or lease their public water systems for short-term gain only to force residents to pay much higher bills down the line — long after the current political leaders have left office.
But while “inalienability” might be the most uncommon word on the ballot, voters may be similarly ill prepared for the city’s nine ballot questions covering everything from how to manage the individual who drafts bills on behalf of the City Council to how to finance elections. We support most of the questions — except one. Here’s how they shake down:
Questions A, B, C and D. These are the no-brainers. Each is necessary to support routine borrowing for affordable housing, economic development, schools and recreation and parks. They are worthy efforts that simply require voter sign-off. Vote “for.”
Question E. As mentioned above, city residents should be wary of water privatization. There is no definitive evidence that it leads to better service or lower costs, and some studies suggest it does the opposite. And here’s one more thing: If it becomes clear later that privatization is the right thing, Baltimoreans can make that happen with another public vote. We recommend a vote “for.”
Question F. This might be more familiar to voters. It gives the city’s inspector general far greater independence by removing it from the direct oversight of the mayor’s office. The IG would also acquire the authority to issue subpoenas. Sounds like an upgrade in accountability to us. Vote “for.”
Question G. Although somewhat controversial (two prominent city attorneys referred to it as a “snake” in a recent Sun commentary), this merely redefines the city’s director of legislative reference as an at-will employee, instead of a civil servant, supervised by the mayor, City Council president and comptroller — as recommended by a charter review commission. Given how most city department heads serve at the pleasure of elected leaders from the police commissioner to the city solicitor, this does not seem unreasonable. The state’s Department of Legislative Services operates similarly, and it is highly effective. Vote “for.”
Question H. This charter amendment is an essential building block toward public financing of election campaigns, perhaps the most important political reform of all. Limiting the grip of big money on elections gets an enthusiastic thumbs up from us in Baltimore and elsewhere. Exactly how this will be funded or the money meted out will still have to be resolved, however. Vote “for.”
Question I. This is the one we don't recommend. It would create an equity fund, a set aside that could be used by the mayor and City Council to overcome various forms of discrimination. We generally favor using public funds to help reduce inequalities, but creating a special fund — without having actually outlined how it will be spent — is putting the cart before the horse. We supported companion legislation to study city practices through an equity lens; let’s see the results first and then decide how to address them. Vote “against.”