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Baltimore City Council overrides mayor’s vetoes on job protections for hospitality workers affected by coronavirus pandemic

Clouds form over Baltimore City Hall in a 2019 photo.
Clouds form over Baltimore City Hall in a 2019 photo. (Jerry Jackson / The Baltimore Sun)

With only hours remaining in Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young’s administration, the Baltimore City Council overrode two of his vetoes of bills designed to protect hospitality workers laid off during the coronavirus pandemic.

However, the board failed to override the Democratic mayor’s veto of a bill that would have renamed a monument dedicated to explorer Christopher Columbus to instead recognize victims of police violence.

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The vote margins Monday evening on all three measures were narrow and all would have failed but for a change in the process, which is part of the city charter. During the Nov. 3 election, voters approved a series of charter amendments to lengthen the amount of time the city council has to override a veto and to reduce the number of votes required from three-quarters to two-thirds of council.

Those changes were effective Dec. 3, said Stefanie Mavronis, a spokeswoman for Democratic Council President Brandon Scott.

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However, Matt Stegman, deputy director of the mayor’s office of government relations, said during Monday’s council lunch meeting that he believed the council had exceeded the deadline to override the vetoes.

Several board members, including Scott and Democratic City Councilman Bill Henry said they planned to proceed with the veto override votes under the newly adopted charter amendments.

The two vetoes successfully overridden were tied to legislation to help the thousands of housekeepers, banquet servers and other employees who lost their jobs as their industry suffers from the pandemic and related shutdowns to control the spread of the virus.

The first, opposed by the city’s law department and the hotel industry, requires hospitality businesses to rehire laid-off workers once they reopen. The council voted to override Young’s veto in a 10-4 vote with an abstention from Democratic Councilwoman Shannon Sneed.

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A second, less-contested bill ensures a hotel retains its staff if the ownership changes. That veto override was approved by a vote of 11-3. Sneed again abstained.

Hotel workers rallied around the bills as uncertainty remains in the economy.

The Maryland Hotel Lodging Association opposed the legislation, saying the bills would strip its members of flexibility needed to recover from the economic crisis.

The city law department, which is part of Young’s administration, said the recall bill illegally mandates an employer rehire a laid-off person in a violation of the freedom of contract between employer and employee.

That legal interpretation was dismissed by other attorneys who testified before the City Council in September, including those with the Public Justice Center.

UNITE HERE Local 7, a union representing local hospitality workers, applauded the override votes.

“Finally, there is some positive news for Baltimore’s thousands of laid-off hospitality workers,” said Roxie Herbekian, president of the group, in a statement. “This means so much to so many low-wage workers who have been out of work due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

An attempt to override the third veto and rename the Columbus obelisk in Herring Run Park to the “Victims of Police Violence Monument” failed on a 9-6 vote. The bill was introduced by Democratic Councilman Ryan Dorsey amid a national reckoning both over Columbus’ place in history and police brutality against Black people.

Young vetoed the bill in November, saying he shared a concern expressed by Police Commissioner Michael Harrison that the monument was close to another memorial honoring officers who died in the line of duty.

“I agree with the commissioner that both memorials are important, and that they should be places for reflection and remembrance, free of disruption and divisiveness,” Young wrote in a letter last month to the council.

The council approved the measure by an 11-4 vote in October. Council Vice President Sharon Green Middleton and Councilman Robert Stokes, both Democrats who previously voted in favor of the measure, voted against the veto override.

Monday night was the final meeting for Scott as council president and Henry as a councilman representing the 4th District. Scott will be sworn in Tuesday at noon to replace Young as mayor, and Henry will take office Tuesday afternoon as the city’s comptroller.

It was also the last council meeting for Sneed and Democrats Mary Pat Clarke, Leon Pinkett and Ed Reisinger. New and reelected council members will be inaugurated Thursday to four-year terms.

Young signed several bills Monday, including a modification of the Water Accountability and Equity Act and a measure that would guarantee tenants the right to legal counsel during an eviction.

Young vetoed a measure that would have created the Baltimore City Office to End Homelessness and a towing bill.

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