Baltimore’s City Council is one step closer to having expanded authority in the budget process, a move that would weaken the mayor’s control over spending.
Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young on Monday signed a bill that would place a question on the November ballot asking voters if the council should have the ability to move money around in the city’s budget.
It’s one of several measures the council has debated in recent months over how to restructure local government. Young vetoed another charter amendment Monday that would create a high-profile city administrator position to oversee day-to-day operations alongside the mayor.
The current budgeting setup is often a source of tension between the two branches of local government.
Baltimore’s charter allows the City Council to cut a city budget proposal, but the body has no authority to then allocate the funding to other items. Only the mayor has that authority, so this charter amendment would recalibrate the balance of power.
Last month — as demonstrators across the country issued calls to “defund the police” amid protests against racism and brutality by officers — the Baltimore City Council voted to eliminate roughly $22 million in police spending. But the Young administration stymied negotiations over shifting that money to other public services.
City Council President Brandon Scott, who is the Democratic nominee for mayor, said the council wanted to use the money to open recreation centers on Sundays, avoid fire department company closures and provide more money for trauma services, among other changes. Instead, the funds defaulted to a budget surplus for the next fiscal year.
Voters typically approve ballot questions like this one, barring fierce opposition campaigns. In 2016, for example, all 10 of the proposed charter amendments and bond issues won approval.
This charter amendment was introduced by Councilman Bill Henry, the Democratic nominee for comptroller, who said he hoped it would foster a “culture of greater cooperation” by increasing the incentive for the mayor to propose a budget council members can support.
”My hope has always been to give the council a little bit more power and then have the mayor and administration work in a more collaborative way with the council during the formulation of the budget,” Henry said.
Scott championed the city administrator bill, arguing that having a politically neutral chief administrative officer would make operations more effective and efficient. He says most of Baltimore’s surrounding jurisdictions employ an administrator to work with their county executive.
But Young, in a letter to Scott explaining his veto, indicated there’s no need to establish such a position in the city charter. Any mayor could appoint a member of their executive team to handle the duties of a city administrator, Young wrote.
“The voters of Baltimore City entrust their mayor to be the chief executive of the city and expect that the heads of city agencies and departments ultimately report to the mayor,” he wrote. “In turn, the mayor should have the flexibility to structure their executive office however he or she feels will best serve our citizens.”
Scott called the mayor’s veto “very unfortunate.” He said Baltimore needs to move forward with professionalizing the work of its city government.
It was not immediately clear if the council would attempt to override Young’s veto.