City Council gets a backbone

Baltimore City Council members, led by Mary Pat Clarke (at lectern) hold a news conference to oppose a state bill that would block local jurisdictions from raising the minimum wage.
Baltimore City Council members, led by Mary Pat Clarke (at lectern) hold a news conference to oppose a state bill that would block local jurisdictions from raising the minimum wage.(Luke Broadwater / Baltimore Sun)

The Baltimore City Council has finally figured out how to assert itself. The perennially underperforming branch of government got a makeover in the last election, with talented newcomers from every corner of the city promising more active and independent leadership. Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, who spent the last several years struggling for influence under former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has, at least for the moment, united the other 14 members behind him, and collectively they are using their power over the budget to push their priorities more aggressively than any council in memory.

That's good news for Baltimore. Even better, Mayor Catherine Pugh has so far taken the developments in stride. Her predecessors blew up over much smaller provocations during previous budget debates, and despite what both sides in the negotiations describe as some heated moments, prospects for an amicable agreement remain strong. But time is of the essence.


The headline figure of $26.5 million in cuts the council preliminarily approved masks a lot of what's going on. Such a cut would exceed the sum total of cuts city councils have made to mayors' budgets dating back at least to the Schmoke administration. It's not going to happen. The council's real goal is to find about half that amount in funds, most of which members want to direct to the city school system in the coming budget year and the next two, with a smaller amount next year for after-school programs and a handful of other initiatives.

Early talk of large cuts to the Police Department to fund schools and other youth programs alarmed many, including the Greater Baltimore Committee, which submitted a letter opposing the idea given the current surge in violent crime. But that notion has faded. The potential cuts include $2.5 million from police department administration, but that has taken on the aura of a bargaining chip rather than a symbolic statement about Baltimore's priorities.

Likewise, the proposal to wipe out the budget for the city's budget office — an obviously absurd idea — is almost certain to be dropped. Council members have grown frustrated at what they see as a lack of transparency and respect from Budget Director Andrew Kleine, and that cut was designed to get his attention — or, perhaps more precisely, to get the attention of Mayor Pugh, who inherited him from the previous administration. Mr. Kleine has a long track record as a strong steward of Baltimore's budget, and he oversaw some difficult reforms under the Rawlings-Blake administration that greatly strengthened the city's long-term finances. But the current state of relations between him and the council is untenable. Mayor Pugh needs to resolve it.

What the council has done that's particularly smart is to approve a series of cuts to some top mayoral priorities tied to promises Ms. Pugh made during last year's campaign. Establishing mobile job centers that go into neighborhoods with high unemployment to provide residents with the services they need to enter the workforce was one of Ms. Pugh's signature initiatives on the campaign trail. So was a promise to add thousands more streetlights around the city to improve public safety. Both are whacked in the budget bill, among other programs dear to the mayor. It's a reminder that she has priorities, and so does the council.

Now the task at hand is to find a way to fund both. Council members are eying a projected $13 million surplus for the end of the current fiscal year, but the administration has resisted committing those funds to ongoing expenses, preferring to see them shore up the pension system and other needs. But surely that can represent at least part of the solution. The mayor has proposed covering a small portion of the council's wish-list from the new youth fund voters approved, but Mr. Young has balked, arguing that the fund was intended to support new, community-directed programs and activities above and beyond what was already being done. If the council can find palatable alternative cuts to protect the sanctity of the fund, great, but this is why we objected to the youth fund in the first place. Sometimes a little flexibility is needed to achieve a greater good, and in this case, that means securing Ms. Pugh's commitment to the council's school funding demands for the next three years.

However the mayor and council resolve their differences — and there are surely a lot of ways, given that the operating budget is $2.8 billion and the two sides have been within a couple million of each other — they need to do so by Monday. That's when the council is slated to make a final vote on the budget. There would still be opportunities to make a deal after that point, but it would be much harder procedurally.

Looking to the future, this exchange points the way toward a new, more productive relationship between the mayor and council. The council has shown that it can unite behind a responsible set of priorities. Ms. Pugh, herself a former legislator, has shown that a mayor can engage in give-and-take with the council without upending the city's strong executive form of leadership. We think that's what the voters want.