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Baltimore council acting too quickly to change city’s government structure | COMMENTARY

People listen to the Baltimore City Council in City Hall during a December meeting.
People listen to the Baltimore City Council in City Hall during a December meeting. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun)

Over the past four years, City Hall has passed a lot of legislation, but it hasn’t brought people together to solve entrenched problems that need more than a bill signed into law after a couple of sparsely-attended hearings.

Problems like: how to fix our police department, how to fund our schools and how to overcome the isolation of so many neighborhoods from the rest of the region. Over the past four years we’ve made no progress on these challenges because we are the worst governed city in America.

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We need a new government, but Baltimore’s City Council is moving too fast to make one. A stack of bills providing at least 10 different changes to the city charter have been introduced that, if passed and signed by the mayor in time to be put on the November 2020 ballot, will ask voters to authorize a drastic rewrite of our government’s structure. Precious few residents even know all this is afoot — this piecemeal revolution that delivers almost weekly some new charter amendment.

And just who is leading this effort? A City Council with no resources and with many key members busy running for higher office instead of remaining on the City Council to see through all these changes, and a mayor who inherited the job with no obvious executive vision. It’s a rushed construction job that will leave us with a Sarasota McMansion that starts falling apart after 10 years when we should be building a stone cathedral that will stand the test of time.

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We can only build that cathedral together — not with the ad hoc process now unfolding, but with a Charter Commission led out of City Hall and backed by fearless leadership unwilling to tolerate the “but this is how we’ve always done it" mentality.

It would start right after this year’s primary, continue into 2021 and result in a comprehensive charter rewrite that gets put on the ballot in 2022 — because that’s how long it will take to answer some very big questions.

First: After multiple failed mayors in a row, should we continue with a strong, accountable chief executive as mayor like other successful cities in the country or create some other system?

Second: We have a City Council ready to take on the world — not just the city budget, but also policy responsibility that has historically been reserved for the mayor while council members handle trash and parking complaints. Should the council take on a new role, and what resources would it need to do it? Would a part-time body representing 14 tiny districts be up to the job?

Third: Our mayor resigned in scandal after taking money from people who wanted her to award them city contracts from her perch on the city’s Board of Estimates. Just what is this board, and why do we use it? And why do we allow elected officials to award city contracts to their own campaign donors? These questions cannot be answered by a City Council about to turn into a pumpkin after the April 28 primary — and they can’t be answered behind closed doors by the so-called “establishment” either.

I’m talking about the archipelago of businesses interests and foundations, nonprofits and anchor institutions and major churches that, in pre-Freddie Gray Baltimore, would decide things in some downtown conference room under the auspices of whoever happened to be mayor. There’s no such thing as the establishment anymore. I witnessed its disintegration while assistant deputy mayor in the weeks after April 27, 2015. Important people would walk out of yet another pointless meeting in the mayor’s executive conference room and pull me aside to ask, “who the hell is in charge here?”

Four years later, no one has an answer. The absence of political consensus leaves us with a splintered conversation on every critical issue. The business community is ignored, the foundation community is at a loss on where to direct resources, and, after four years of one of the worst homicide rates in America, one of the leading public health institutions in the country has given up hope on our police department and has set out to build its own.

The question of leadership will not be answered by another set of bills passed by the City Council. It won’t be answered on election day either, but only in the weeks and months after, by new leadership that brings forth all the talent currently sidelined by a failed status quo. The future of our government cannot be decided in the next several months and these 10 or so bills should not pass this year — not without a process that puts all that talent to use.

Dan Sparaco (dan@dansparaco.com) is an attorney running for Baltimore City Council President.

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