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Mayor and City Council: Disagreeing when they agree

In an ideal world, the City Council and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake would work together to equip Baltimore police officers with body cameras that record their interactions with the public. The anecdotal evidence from departments that have adopted the devices shows they significantly reduce complaints of police brutality and misconduct and exert a restraining influence on citizens' behavior. Moreover, given several recent, well-publicized incidents of officers abusing their authority, the issue has acquired a new sense of urgency amid increasing calls for police to be held more accountable to the communities they serve.

The City Council thinks Baltimore police should have them. The police commissioner thinks his force should have them. The mayor thinks they should have them.

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You'd think that combination would guarantee cooperation between the different branches of city government to come up with a workable plan as quickly as possible. But no. Instead, what we are seeing is another example of city officials' inability to play well with others, and it's a maddening prospect. In the controversy over police body cameras, the mayor and the council seem less interested in assuring the safety of residents and officers than in trying to trip each other up in a pointless contest over who gets credit for addressing the issue.

That was surely the signal the council sent Monday when it voted overwhelmingly to approve a bill requiring all of Baltimore's nearly 3,000 officers to wear the devices — this despite the mayor's pledge to veto the measure if it reached her desk. Ms. Rawlings-Blake has criticized the proposal as a "piecemeal" approach to a complex problem and raised questions about its cost and legality. She wants the whole issue reviewed by a task force she convened to recommend how the city should proceed after City Solicitor George Nilson issued an opinion last month arguing that the council has no legal authority to interfere in Police Commissioner Anthony Batts' job, even though Mr. Batts was on record as wanting the cameras before the mayor was.

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So we're left with a situation where everyone involved agrees the cameras should be adopted, but they're all working at cross purposes toward achieving that goal. City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young's spokesman says the council offered to amend the bill to take into account the mayor's concerns about privacy and constitutional issues and even suggested incorporating the recommendations of the mayor's task force into the legislation when it completes its work. Ms. Rawlings-Blake's spokesman says that's not true. The mayor's spokesman says the council president refused the chance to serve on the body camera task force. Mr. Young's spokesman says he suggested the inclusion of an outsider with law enforcement experience, but the administration refused.

It's more than a bit reminiscent of the years-long dispute between the mayor and Comptroller Joan Pratt over who should be in charge of replacing the city government's antiquated phone system, a turf war that has cost the city taxpayers millions. In that dispute and the current one involving body cameras, the issue is not what policy is in the best interests of the city but whether elected officials can put aside their political jousting long enough to have a productive relationship leading to that end.

This is not the first time the mayor and city council have found themselves in at loggerheads trying to put their own stamp on a matter widely supported by the public. After The Sun reported this summer that the city had paid out some $5.7 million to settle lawsuits alleging excessive use of force by police, Mr. Young and Ms. Rawlings-Blake insisted on taking credit for asking Justice Department officials to review the department's operations. As if the public cares.

Then there was the contretemps over the city's local hiring ordinance mandating that businesses getting large city contracts hire local residents for 51 percent of the new jobs that were created. Then as well, Ms. Rawlings-Blake criticized the council's efforts as unworkable and unnecessary because she had already taken steps to address the issue. The council went ahead with legislation anyway, and Ms. Rawlings-Blake allowed it to become law despite Mr. Nilson's assurance that it was unconstitutional.

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That incident and others convinced Mr. Young and his colleagues that they could not rely on Mr. Nilson to give them unbiased legal advice, since he reports to the mayor and is often seen as reflecting her views. Mr. Young introduced a charter amendment giving the council the authority to hire its own lawyer, which the mayor signed and the voters approved this month, despite Mr. Nilson's objections that it was unnecessary.

There's no way of knowing whether a lawyer hired by the council would have offered a different opinion regarding the legality of requiring police to wear body cameras. But even if he or she had, it wouldn't have solved the problem of the fractured relationship between the mayor's office and the council. The only way to fix that is for the two bodies to resolve to cooperate more on the issues residents care about rather than trying to take all the credit for doing what voters elected them both to do.

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