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City Hall theater

No sooner had the Baltimore City Council taken a strong step in defiance of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's promised vetoes of two controversial bills Monday night than they announced their intentions to cave under the pressure and let her have her way. The council, it seems, is an independent, co-equal branch of government, but only up to a point.

On balance, the right policy decisions appear likely to prevail. Mayor Rawlings-Blake was absolutely correct to decry the process by which the council arrived at a proposed ban on plastic grocery bags through a last-minute amendment to legislation that would merely have taxed them. We would argue that a ban on the bags would still be a bad idea no matter what kind of public input the legislation had, on the grounds that plastic bags are a problem but not exactly the biggest one facing the city, and that Baltimore, while it is struggling to attract residents and jobs, doesn't need to be leading the state — indeed, the entire East Coast — on this issue. Whether the mayor objects to the substance or just the process is a fair question, but the lack of public hearings made her veto a slam-dunk decision.

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The other bill that passed in the face of a promised veto, a requirement that city police officers wear body cameras, is a closer call. The question here is not whether city officers should be using the devices — they should because of their potential to cut down on excessive use of force and to prompt better behavior by ordinary citizens. Everybody at City Hall — including the mayor — agrees on that. The question is whether the decision needs to be mandated through legislation right now, or whether the mayor should be given some leeway to work out the details and implement it on her own. Ultimately, either approach would probably get the city to more or less the same place. But given that the mayor is actually moving ahead with a task force to study the issue and make recommendations, likely by the end of the year, it's hard to understand the council's urgency. Why not hold the legislation in reserve in case the mayor fails to follow through?

But by choosing the path they did, the council has wound up looking politically opportunistic. They'll take the credit for voting for body cameras and a bag ban but will avoid the heat that would come with the override of a mayoral veto. You'd like to think that if the council members believe that these bills are the right policy, they would stick to their convictions after a mayoral override, but that's not typically how things work. Councilman Robert Curran was particularly forthright in explaining the phenomenon, saying he supports the issues but more strongly believes in respecting the prerogative of the mayor — any mayor. But he's not the only one who would drop off from the supporter's column on one bill or the other if a veto override vote took place. In a system where the mayor wields tremendous power over everything from the budget to whether potholes get filled in one district or another, veto overrides are virtually unheard of. It all begs the question: If the council puts keeping the mayor happy above its policy convictions, what was the point in holding these votes in the first place?

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Not everyone on the council is malleable, of course. Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young and Councilman Warren Branch, who were they major drivers on the body camera issue, and Councilman James Kraft, who sponsored the bag bill, could be expected to stick to their guns. On the other side, kudos to Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector for standing alone in voting no on both bills and not hiding behind an abstention, as some of her colleagues did.
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But what the whole mess points to is a dysfunctional relationship between the mayor and City Council. The two sides are clearly not working collaboratively to foster the best interests of the city, but neither are they engaged in the kind of productive tension that could reconcile opposing views of how best to move forward. What we have instead is an elaborate dance between the two branches of government about who gets the credit or blame while nothing gets done. In a city with plenty of real problems, that's something we can't afford.

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