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Bill Henry: Give Baltimore City Council a real voice in spending by voting yes for Question F | COMMENTARY

Bill Henry, the 4th District Baltimore City councilman.
Bill Henry, the 4th District Baltimore City councilman. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

“Let us have the power people think we do.”

That was how Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke explained her vote on City Council bill 19-0379, which is now Question F on the upcoming general election ballot. Most people in Baltimore City don’t realize that right now the Baltimore City Council only has the power to decrease or cut items from a city budget presented to them by the mayor. Voting yes on Question F would give the council the power to add money to a line item, after an equivalent amount has been cut from another line item.

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There are plenty of examples when not having enough budget authority constricted the City Council’s ability to act on major issues. In the final week of budget hearings, my office received over 5,000 emails calling on the City Council to defund some of the $550 million dollar budget proposal for the Baltimore City Police Department. People wanted the City Council to take some of that money and reinvest it in other needs. The problem was that the City Council does not have the power to reallocate money in the budget.

If the mayor proposes cutting funds to libraries, recreation centers or fire houses in the budget, the City Council can’t legally move money from some other agency and restore those cuts. However, if this charter amendment is ratified by the voters, Question F would allow the Baltimore City Council to also add items to the budget and, in doing so, have a real voice in the city’s spending. It would also bring Baltimore in line with other similarly-sized cities such as Seattle, Minneapolis, Washington, D.C.; and Louisville.

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The City Council would not be able to reduce or eliminate anything fixed by law or that involves the municipal debt. Nor would the City Council be able to suddenly go on a spending spree — the budget still has to be balanced. Any additions to budget lines would have to be balanced by cuts elsewhere or by creating additional revenue. Question F would not let the City Council shirk the city’s financial commitments. What it would do is let the City Council reorder the mayor’s budget priorities.

For the record, this is actually the second time that the Baltimore City Council has passed this charter amendment since I’ve been on the City Council. I first introduced this charter amendment back in 2012; it was vetoed by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake later that term and the City Council wasn’t able to override her decision. In another attempt in 2018, a group of organizers and volunteers spent months attempting to collect 10,000 signatures to get this issue on the ballot, but didn’t quite succeed. This idea is not new, nor has it been given insufficient consideration.

The expectation is not that the City Council would need to use this power with any regularity. I’m hopeful that by giving future city councils the power to move money around at the very end of the budget process, we will also be giving future mayoral administrations the incentive to include the council — and by extension, the public — much earlier in the creation and formulation of Baltimore’s budget each cycle.

There’s no reason to believe that simply spreading power more evenly between the executive and legislative branches will intrinsically lead to some sort of financial free fall. Broader distribution of responsibilities, encouraging collaboration between elected officials, and engaging openly and transparently with our communities should be best practices for any government which strives to be of the people, by the people and for the people.

On Nov. 3, voters will get to choose what type of local government they want: one with the working checks and balances that embody our democracy, like we learned about in grade school, or one that more closely resembles the kind of autocracy our country has rebelled against from its beginning. If you want checks and balances, vote yes for Question F.

Bill Henry (Bill.henry@baltimorecity.gov) is a member of the Baltimore City Council who represents the Fourth District. He is also running for city comptroller.

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