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Power struggle at City Hall

Miffed that Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has vetoed three of their bills in the last several months, members of the Baltimore City Council are proposing legislation to limit her power — bills that she would presumably also veto. When you've got one of the strongest mayoral systems of any major city in America, it's not easy to make such changes, and this whole exercise is liable to amount to little more than a venting of collective spleen in advance of the 2016 elections. We should also note that the mayor had a point in at least two of the three vetoes and that she took action on her own today to address the issue raised by one of the bills, Baltimore's excessive and frustrating "minor privilege fees."

But that doesn't mean some of the extraordinary powers the city's charter gives to the mayor don't deserve some examination — even Ms. Rawlings-Blake would surely agree with that, or at least she did back when she was council president. What members of the council have now proposed are three measures that could make the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches a little less lopsided: term limits for city elected officials, a lowering of the threshold to override a mayoral veto and a reduction in the size of the Board of Estimates so that it is not controlled solely by the mayor. There are some good ideas there (and at least one bad one), but the list of changes to city government that merit debate is more extensive.

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We are wary of term limits as a matter of principle, particularly when it comes to the legislative branch. Voters should have the right to re-elect people they believe are serving them well, even if we don't always agree with their judgment. The proposal by Councilman Bill Henry would limit the mayor, comptroller and council president to two terms and council members to three. But in general, it is not the excessive length of mayoral administrations that has been the problem. In modern Baltimore political history, only three mayors would have exceeded those limits: Kurt Schmoke and Thomas J. D'Allesandro Jr. (three terms each) and William Donald Schaefer (four terms). Mr. Schmoke faced an unexpectedly strong challenge for his third term from then-Council President (now Councilwoman) Mary Pat Clarke, but we doubt many think mayors Schaefer and D'Allesandro stuck around too long.

The proposed lowering of the threshold for overriding a mayoral veto from three-fourths of the body to two-thirds merits some discussion. The three-quarters level is much higher than in most other bodies — in Congress, it's two-thirds, and in the General Assembly, it's three-fifths, for example. But the issue is not whether unhappy council members have the votes to override the mayor, it's whether they have the guts. On all three bills the mayor has vetoed recently, the council either had enough votes or was within one vote of the three-quarters threshold, but members didn't even attempt an override, so strong is the fear of retribution by the mayor.

The proposed change to the Board of Estimates, however, is long overdue. Though the council president technically chairs the body, the mayor controls three of the five votes: her own and those of the city solicitor and the director of public works, both of whom report to her. That makes the board meaningless as any sort of check on executive power. A more effective model is that of the state's Board of Public Works, which serves a similar function to approve government expenditures but which subjects the governor's initiatives to approval by the comptroller, an independently elected official, and the treasurer, who is selected by the legislature. Such a system hardly hinders the effective running of government — most matters are approved without discussion — but it does allow for meaningful policy debates when they're warranted.

But if the council wants to actually accomplish something here, it should take up a suggestion by the 2009 version of Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. The then-council president was locked in a budget fight with then-Mayor Sheila Dixon, and she persuaded her fellow members to cut some of the mayor's proposed spending for the Office of the Inspector General. The mayor then used her line-item veto power to erase the council's action, a move Ms. Rawlings-Blake said at the time was "autocratic" and in violation of the spirit of openness and transparency. Surely Mayor Rawlings-Blake, circa 2015, wouldn't object to a charter change making clear that the council's trims to the executive's budget are the final word.

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