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Baltimore's big bait-and-switch

When Baltimore primary voters went to the polls last month to select the Democratic nominee for mayor, they were choosing among candidates who had presented sweeping visions for transforming the city. The candidate they selected, state Sen. Catherine Pugh, promised increased focus on improving the schools, new initiatives to promote economic opportunity, better transportation systems and new efforts to reduce crime. On all those fronts and more, she was challenged by other candidates with their own strategies for setting the city on a new course.

When those voters looked farther down the ballot to their choices for City Council president and comptroller, they were choosing among candidates who ... well, it's hard to say what they stood for. Incumbent Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young and Comptroller Joan Pratt all but completely refused to debate their opponents. There was virtually no exchange of ideas in those races, and even if there had been, it would have been markedly different from that in the mayor's race. Mr. Young doesn't even have a campaign webpage, and Ms. Pratt's is, appropriately, focused on her qualifications as an auditor rather than a detailed vision for running the city.

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Yet Mr. Young is now pushing two charter amendments that would give himself and Ms. Pratt what amounts to a huge promotion. If he prevails, the general election ballot in November will list him and Ms. Pratt as the Democratic candidates for council president and comptroller, but effectively they'll be in the running for the role of co-mayor.

Mr. Young is pitching the two charter amendments — one would change the composition of the Board of Estimates and the other would boost the council's power in the budget process — as pointing toward a more collaborative system of governance that he says would be more responsive to the needs of Baltimore's have-nots than the current arrangement. What they would really do is to upend a system in which the clear line of accountability for Baltimore's success or failure runs through the mayor's office and replace it with one in which no one would be in charge when it comes to basic functions like setting spending priorities, negotiating union contracts, setting salary scales for public employees and establishing the structure of city departments.

The first amendment would remove two members of the mayor's administration from the Board of Estimates, leaving it as a three-member body of the mayor, council president and comptroller, with the council president serving as chairman. That could be problematic in any number of respects but none more so than in developing the city's annual budget. Every appropriation would suddenly become subject to political bargaining between three independently elected officials. If there's another major American city with a structure like that, we're unaware of it.

The second amendment is less far reaching but still unwise. Under current procedures, the council can cut from the mayor's proposed budget but can't move money from one line item to another and can't add to any appropriation. Council members have frequently negotiated with mayors to shift money within the budget, but if they reach an impasse in which the mayor refuses to reallocate the savings from budget cuts, the default option is to reduce the property tax rate by that amount. The amendment would let the council directly reallocate funds. Such a system isn't without precedent — some cities handle their budgets that way, as does, for example, Montgomery County — but it would put a potentially broad new power in the hands of council members who campaigned without knowing they would have it. Voters might well have made different choices in the primary if they had known that was coming.

Budgets are the means by which leaders' visions are turned into action. If both of these amendments are enacted, the vision Baltimore's budgets will reflect won't be that of the woman Democrats just chose as their nominee. If anything, they will reflect the vision of the council president, who would chair both the body that forms the budget and the one that revises it. That's not the establishment of new checks and balances, it's a coup d'etat. Is it a coincidence that Mr. Young started pushing for these amendments after the deadline had passed for candidates to file to run against him?

We understand that both of these amendments were born of council members' frustration with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, but come what may, she will be gone in December, as will eight of the 14 council members who will soon determine whether to override her vetoes of both bills. If the requisite supermajority of the council believes these amendments are a good idea regardless of who sits in the mayor's office, we hope they will at least recognize that enacting them now, amid the most consequential turnover of Baltimore's government in at least a generation, would amount to a bait-and-switch for voters. It is only by allowing the outgoing mayor's vetoes to stand that we afford the next mayor the chance to transform the vision voters chose into reality.

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