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Politics

Charter amendments financed by Sinclair Broadcast Group chairman could be on Baltimore ballots this fall

Two ballot questions supported with an infusion of cash from the chairman of Sinclair Broadcast Group may be put to voters this fall in Baltimore.

City election officials are reviewing petition signatures for two potential questions for voters: Do they want to establish recall elections for city politicians who fail to live up to standards? And would they impose a limit of two terms on the city’s mayor, City Council and comptroller?

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The drive to get the questions on the ballot was undertaken by a group called the People for Elected Accountability & Civic Engagement. The organization was created in February and funded almost entirely by David Smith, executive chairman of Sinclair, a Hunt Valley-based television broadcasting company, according to a July 25 campaign finance report. Sinclair operates 185 television stations in 86 markets, including WBFF-TV, known as Fox 45, in Baltimore.

Smith gave $385,000 to the group in two donations, most of it in March. The organization paid more than $315,000 to Rowland Strategies, a Fells Point consulting firm, while law firm DLA Piper received about $61,000, filings show.

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Fox 45 News has frequently reported on the idea of recalling Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott, who started his four-year term in December 2020. Baltimore’s charter has no mechanism for the public to recall officeholders and does not limit the number of terms elected leaders can serve.

In December, the station ran a report titled “Should the Baltimore City charter allow for the recall of elected officials?” It outlined the steps needed to amend the charter to permit recall elections. Around the same time, the station conducted an unscientific survey that asked people whether they would like to see Scott recalled. Another report — “As frustration rises about Baltimore crime, questions raised about a mayoral recall” — ran two days later. In it, a reporter said the survey showed 200 people, or 95% of those who took part, supported recalling Scott.

An earlier report, in March 2021, noted the results of another informal survey. It asked over 1,000 people if they would like the power to recall elected leaders across the state. The report said 83% of those who participated “would start a recall petition drive, as opposed to calling or writing a letter, or waiting until the next election.”

Mitchell Schmale, a spokesman for Smith, said the Sinclair chairman would not answer questions about the effort “out of respect for the ongoing current review process taking place at the board of elections.”

Jovani Patterson, a former Republican candidate for City Council president and the petition committee’s chairman, initially agreed to an interview with The Baltimore Sun. The next day, when the interview was scheduled, he instead released a statement.

“Out of respect for the ongoing review process by the Baltimore City Board of Elections, we have decided not to speak about our charter amendment petitions at this time,” Patterson said.

The proposed charter amendments would put power back in the hands of Baltimore’s residents and ensure elected officials have “our best interests at heart,” according to Patterson’s statement.

“These changes to our local government are vitally important — now more than ever,” he said. “If there is any one thing politically that both Democrats and Republicans support in substantial numbers, it is the concept of term limits in government.”

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Patterson declined to answer questions about how he secured funding for the initiative and what kind of efforts were undertaken to collect signatures.

Sinclair CEO David Smith

The city’s charter requires 10,000 signatures for a question to appear on the ballot. Petitioners submitted 19,448 signatures for the term-limit measure and 11,025 for the recall election provision, according to elections officials.

City elections board officials have until Monday to review the signatures to ensure names and addresses match voter registration files. The petition sheets themselves also are checked for signs of fraud or failure to follow proper procedures.

Experienced petition organizers say 15,000 signatures is typically a safe number of signatures to submit, knowing that some are likely to be thrown out.

Scandal has gripped the administrations of several Baltimore elected officials, but removing officeholders has proved difficult. It was a plea deal, not action by voters or elected officials, that forced Democratic Mayor Sheila Dixon from office in 2010. Dixon had pleaded guilty to perjury and was convicted of misdemeanor embezzlement.

In 2019, when Democratic Mayor Catherine Pugh’s role in a self-dealing scandal became evident, members of the City Council found they had no mechanism to force her from office. Pugh ultimately resigned amid mounting pressure.

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Following her departure, voters in 2020 approved a charter amendment allowing the City Council to remove a mayor, comptroller or council member for incompetency, misconduct in office, willful neglect of duty, or felony or misdemeanor in office.

Jovani Patterson at a news conference Jan. 27, 2022, in Baltimore.

The concept of recall elections has existed for more than 100 years in the United States, first popularized during a wave of “direct democracy innovations” in the first part of the 20th century, but they’ve never been common, said Seth Masket, a professor of political science and director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver. Masket has researched both recall elections and term limits.

A successful movement to recall California Gov. Gray Davis and seat actor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2003 is among the most memorable recall efforts. Masket said most are unsuccessful; Davis was unusually unpopular and Schwarzenegger was an uncommonly popular alternative, he said.

The concept of recall elections is popular with voters in the abstract. Reality is sometimes different, Masket said.

“When you see those elections in play, voters quickly find them kind of gross,” he said. “In most states, voters are already fairly inundated with elections as it is. There’s primary and state and local, and then one more election shows up. People are shocked that this is a thing.”

Term limits are more popular, Masket said. A wave of state legislatures adopted term limits between 1990 and 1992, and even now, almost any time term limits land on the ballot, they are approved, he said. In Maryland, however, only the governor is limited to two, four-year terms.

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Their effectiveness is debatable, Masket said. Research has shown that legislative branches typically weaken with term limits as less experienced lawmakers occupy seats. Power shifts to executive branch lawmakers or lobbyists and unelected staff who have been around longer, he said.

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Term limits also have been associated with increased polarization. Faster turnover leads parties to recruit new officeholders and those people tend to be further toward the extremes of either party, Masket said.

Studies also found that legislators in their final term in office do less work, Masket said.

“Maybe people prefer that, but they write fewer bills. They show up less often,” he said.

Several unsuccessful attempts at establishing term limits locally have come in recent years from Baltimore City Council members. Democratic Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer proposed a measure in 2018 to limit the mayor, comptroller and council members to three terms. It failed to get out of committee. Then-Councilman Bill Henry, now the Democratic city comptroller, introduced a similar proposal in 2015 that failed to gain enough support.

In addition to verifying signatures for the recall and term limit petitions, local elections officials also must confirm that a petition’s subject matter is authorized by law. Based on the advice of a “legal authority,” officials must determine whether enactment would be unconstitutional or otherwise barred by law. City Solicitor Jim Shea said the state attorney general’s office would provide such guidance for the city election board.

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Baltimore Elections Director Armstead Jones said this week that staff are reviewing signatures for the petitions and will announce the results Monday.

Petitioners have until Aug. 31 to seek judicial review for any charter amendment petition that is rejected.


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