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In contested Baltimore City Council vote, measure to ask voters to approve term limits on elected officials fails

A proposal to ask city voters if Baltimore’s elected officials should be limited to three terms in office has failed before a divided City Council. City Hall is shown in 2019.
A proposal to ask city voters if Baltimore’s elected officials should be limited to three terms in office has failed before a divided City Council. City Hall is shown in 2019. (Jerry Jackson / The Baltimore Sun)

A proposal to ask city voters if Baltimore’s elected officials should be limited to three terms in office failed Monday before a divided City Council.

Half the council said voters should be given the chance to approve or reject term limits by way of a ballot question in November. The other half argued that voters already have the power to impose term limits every four years.

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“I do believe we have term limits: They are called elections,” said Councilman Eric Costello, who represents South Baltimore.

Costello was one of seven council members who voted against the proposed charter amendment to limit the city’s elected officials to three consecutive, four-year terms, or a total of 12 years in a row. The limits would have applied to the mayor, comptroller and all of the City Council members, including the president.

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Another seven members voted to approve the legislation, which would have sent it to Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young for his consideration — and ultimately, supporters hoped, to voters in the general election.

The measure was defeated in a tie: 7 to 7 with one abstention.

By declining to support or reject the measure, Councilman John Bullock, a Democrat from West Baltimore, was the deciding factor. Bullock said, “I wasn’t totally supportive of it. I wasn’t totally against it. I didn’t want to be the one to influence it one way or another.”

Bullock said he does not regret his vote, saying that each council member had a chance to express their opinions and vote accordingly.

Monday’s vote was the culmination of four years of effort by Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer of Northwest Baltimore to give voters a referendum on whether to limit how long city officials serve. He said the legislation represented “good government,” citing research that term limits help root out corruption and provide a pipeline for new leaders to emerge.

“All I am asking is that we give the voters the opportunity to make this decision,” Schleifer said to his colleagues during a rare extended floor debate.

Most deliberation is reserved for committee hearings, with legislation typically receiving a perfunctory up or down vote during council meetings.

In addition to Schleifer, Council President Brandon Scott and members Zeke Cohen, Bill Henry, Kristerfer Burnett, Edward Reisinger and Shannon Sneed voted for the term limit bill. Opposing it were Costello, Mary Pat Clarke, Danielle McCray, Ryan Dorsey, Sharon Green Middleton, Leon F. Pinkett III and Robert Stokes Sr. All are Democrats.

Schleifer said he will push the council to continue to have a conversation around term limits, including discussing a similar bill introduced by the mayor. That legislation is awaiting a committee hearing.

However, given the timing of Monday’s vote, it is unlikely voters could be asked to weigh in on term limits before November 2022. Any proposed amendments to the city’s charter submitted by the council need to be finalized in about a month to make it onto this fall’s ballot.

Changing Baltimore’s governance through a series of proposed charter amendments has dominated much of the council’s attention this year.

Some members have sought changes in an attempt to weaken the power of future mayors following the “Healthy Holly” scandal that brought down former Democratic Mayor Catherine Pugh. Pugh is serving a three-year federal prison sentence for fraud and tax evasion after she sold self-published children’s books to companies that did business with the city.

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At Monday’s meeting, the council voted 9-6 to approve a proposed charter amendment introduced by Scott to create a city administrator’s position. An administrator would serve alongside the mayor to help carry out the city’s day-to-day operations. Scott said Baltimore is a “$3 billion entity and you would not find another that doesn’t operate with a separate CEO and chief administrator.”

Collectively, Scott said the goal of the charter amendments is to give Baltimore a “21st-century government” that operates in the most effective and efficient way. Scott won June’s mayoral primary and is poised to become the next mayor. The primary typically determines who will become mayor in a city where Democrats far outnumber Republicans.

The outgoing mayor, Young, who lost the primary to Scott, has said the council is moving too fast. He asked the members to get more public input, slow down and move more deliberately. It’s unclear what action Young may take on the proposed charter amendment to hire an administrator.

He must decide whether to sign, veto or let the bills pass without his signature. The clock is ticking, given the upcoming deadline for charter amendments to make it onto the ballot. If Young vetoes a measure, the council would attempt to override it.

The mayor has not taken action yet on another bill that would give the council more authority over the city’s budget. The council approved that measure in early July.

Voters are expected to be presented with at least two other options to reshape the city government. The council previously passed proposed charter amendments that would give the council the ability to remove a mayor and to change the process to overturn a mayor’s veto.

Scott pumped the brakes on another charter amendment that would have limited the mayor’s power over the city government’s purchases and contracts. Citing complications in reconfiguring Baltimore’s spending panel, the Board of Estimates, Scott postponed a vote on his legislation.

He vowed to push changes to the board by the end of the year. If the council approves a bill later this year, it is likely to go before voters in 2022.

“I remain committed to figuring out how we move forward on this bill and this whole subject, but not in a rushed fashion,” Scott said.

The Board of Estimates approves all city purchases, contracts and settlements worth more than $25,000. Three of the board’s five votes are controlled by the mayor. While the council president and comptroller are elected independently, the board’s other two members, the city solicitor and the public works director, serve at the pleasure of the mayor — and vote accordingly.

Originally, Scott was looking to cut the mayoral appointees from the board to weaken the mayor’s control over city spending. But he said upon further research, such a change raises questions about split votes stalling contract approvals. Scott said he is studying the few large U.S. cities that still operate similar boards to see what structure would work best for Baltimore.

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Shannon Wright, the Republican nominee for mayor, said the council has had enough time to evaluate proposed changes to the spending panel, and Scott’s decision to postpone action is evidence the city needs to move in a new direction. In a statement, Wright described how she saw Scott’s actions: “As a primary candidate to get votes: ‘Let’s limit the mayor’s power.' As the Democratic nominee: ‘Let’s wait a minute.‘”

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Scott said recently that any suggestion his action was politically motivated was false.

In a recent council discussion on the various charter amendments, longtime Democratic Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke expressed some reservations. She said she supports Baltimore’s strong-mayor form of government.

“Someone has to be held responsible,” said Clarke, who is retiring in December.

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