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Baltimore City Council rejects Mayor Pugh's proposed rewrite of city charter

The Baltimore City Council has killed almost all of Mayor Catherine E. Pugh’s plan to rewrite major sections of the city’s charter.

The Baltimore City Council has killed almost all of Mayor Catherine E. Pugh’s plan to rewrite major sections of the city’s charter after several members said they were not given enough time to consider the proposed changes, including one to expand the mayor’s control over contracts.

The council’s action ended a lengthy process that Pugh began in January to form a commission to conduct the first examination of the charter in a quarter of a century. The document functions as the city’s constitution, establishing the powers of the mayor and the council and outlining agency responsibilities.

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The result of the commission was the mayor’s introduction of five separate pieces of legislation that would have made changes to many aspects of city government.

But only a few minor proposals are expected to advance through the council and go before voters for the final say in the November election. The more significant changes will have to wait until the next election in 2020.

The Baltimore City Council killed Mayor Pugh's plans to revise the City Charter, which functions as Baltimore's constitution.
The Baltimore City Council killed Mayor Pugh's plans to revise the City Charter, which functions as Baltimore's constitution.

Councilman Eric Costello, chairman of the committee considering the proposals, said council members had expressed concerns about the tight timeline. Council members faced an August deadline to pass the bills and send them to voters on November’s ballot for the final say. The Pugh administration pulled back some of the measures on its own.

“The administration wanted some more time to talk with council members,” Costello said.

Pugh assembled a commission of 55 business, charity and community leaders and a staff of researchers to review the charter. Officials said the document was outdated and they wanted to explore ways to make it easier to do business with the city.

The commission held 40 meetings and, last week, issued a 92-page report proposing dozens of changes. They included stripping out many sections of the charter and adopting them as laws or internal rules and removing outdated sections. The commission proposed language to require similar reviews of the charter once a decade.

The commission also suggested that city leaders should consider switching to a two-year budget cycle and consider ways to better manage grant money.

Two remaining proposed changes include altering the way the Department of Legislative Reference — the city’s in-house law library — is overseen and giving independence to the city’s inspector general. The latter proposal had already been proposed by council members.

Especially controversial was the mayor’s proposal to give herself more power to make deals with private companies, a change watchdog groups said could lead to a less transparent contracting system and the selling off of public assets — especially the city’s water system.

On Monday, Pugh sent out a news release announcing a sudden, added change to the charter that would ban the privatization of the city’s water. The new proposal was announced just minutes before a council committee began to consider one of the five charter amendment proposals. That created confusion and led to an unraveling of the bills, Pugh spokesman James Bentley said.

“It pretty much got killed in the council last night,” Bentley said Tuesday.

Councilman Brandon Scott said Pugh’s last-minute proposal on the water system was the final straw.

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