Members of a Baltimore City Council committee pressed forward with several proposed charter amendments designed to restructure the city’s legislative and budgeting process Thursday despite stark warnings from city administrators that the moves could be “disastrous” for the city’s finances.
Numerous proposed amendments are on the table, including measures that would reduce the size of the City Council and the Board of Estimates, change the number of votes needed to override a mayoral veto and dictate how elected officials can be removed.
The slate of amendments, which would need to be put on the ballot for city voters if approved by the council, come in the wake of the “Healthy Holly” book scandal that led to the resignation and prosecution of former Democratic Mayor Catherine Pugh. Pugh, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy and tax evasion and was sentenced last week to three years in federal prison, sold hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of self-published children’s books to groups that did business with the city.
City officials in the finance and law offices voiced concerns with multiple proposals Thursday, chiefly one that would reduce the number of people who sit on the Board of Estimates from five to three. The board, which approves all purchases, contracts and settlements worth more than $25,000, is made up of the mayor, the council president, the comptroller and two mayoral hires — the city solicitor and public works director. The latter two traditionally vote with the mayor, who is their boss.
A proposed amendment sponsored by Council President Brandon Scott, who is himself vying to be mayor, would cut the two mayoral appointees.
Bob Cenname, Baltimore’s budget director, cautioned the council’s equity and structure committee during a hearing Thursday that reducing the board could delay important spending decisions, hurt the city’s bond rating and slow the city’s response to financial challenges such as an economic downturn.
“I understand there have been recent scandals that have raised questions about the way we do business, but I think this goes beyond ethical issues and really undoes the way we structure our government," Cenname said.
Baltimore has enjoyed a AA bond rating, which reduces the cost of borrowing money for large capital expenses, in part because of its strong-mayor form of government, Cenname said. Ratings agencies view the system as more agile during a crisis, he said.
Cenname also warned that altering the board’s makeup could cause deadlock. If one member of a three-person board abstains, critical spending matters such as contracts, personnel issues and the city’s budget could become mired by split votes between the other two members.
Councilman Bill Henry, chair of the committee, suggested allowing the mayor to chair the Board of Estimates rather than the council president as is current practice and requiring the proposed budget to bypass the board. Scott suggested amending the charter amendment language to allow the mayor to send the budget directly to the City Council if the board does not approve it by a specific date.
Cenname conceded that such changes would be improvements.
Scott said change was necessary to combat corruption.
“We have to put forth a better system where it’s not just where one person walks in and makes a decision, and two people are just going to do what they say,” he said.
The committee recessed its meeting on the proposal with plans to continue the discussion at a later date.
However, council members did move several other proposals forward, some over objections from the city finance department.
One of those bills, a proposed charter amendment sponsored by Henry, would reduce the number of council votes needed to override a mayoral veto from three-fourths to two-thirds and take away the mayor’s ability to issue line-item vetoes to the city’s budget.
The city finance department offered an amendment to the resolution stripping the line-item veto language. Cenname called it a “technical adjustment," and argued the line-item veto allows the mayor to object to a portion of the budget without delaying its entire passage.
“We don’t want to stop the functioning of city government for small disagreements,” he said.
None of the three committee members moved to approve the amendment. The committee then voted unanimously to forward the resolution to the full council for a second reading.
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Two additional proposed amendments also moved forward for second reading. One would modify how long the council has to consider overriding a mayoral veto. Another would allow the council to remove a mayor with a three-fourths vote if the mayor engaged in a felony or misdemeanor in office, or in other misconduct, based on charges from the city’s legislative investigations committee or the city’s inspector general.
Lester Davis, spokesman for Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, questioned why the council was moving so quickly with the proposed charter amendments. Davis said the council previously promised not to act on the resolutions before the end of April. The primary for mayor and council members is April 28.
“I’m not sure why they’re all of a sudden in a rush to move forward with a charter amendment that the city’s budget director says would negatively impact the city’s finances,” Davis said.
Henry, who is running for city comptroller, said the timeline for some of the amendments, specifically those dealing with vetoes, was expedited out of concern that Young “likely” would veto multiple charter amendments. Others were moved forward because they were less controversial, Henry said.
“It was my original expectation that we would have hearings and deal with everything afterwards, but over the process of having those hearings, I believe the term of art is my thinking has evolved,” Henry said.
Asked whether the mayor planned to veto any of the amendments, Davis said Henry was “putting the cart before the horse.”
“A number of them are very dangerous and I think that they’re being rushed,” Davis said. “It’s a premature charge. We want to get back to what they promised: that this process would be thoughtful."