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Too many districts? Not enough? Another bill introduced to reshape Baltimore City Council

The Baltimore City Council will consider yet another proposal to reshape power structures in local government.

Councilman Ryan Dorsey introduced a charter amendment during Monday’s meeting that would alter the composition of the council. It would eliminate the at-large council president position and add a 15th district representative instead. The council president would then be chosen by council members, similarly to how the General Assembly and other county councils select their leadership.

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This bill comes two weeks after Councilman Bill Henry introduced a different charter amendment that would shrink the council to nine members — six from individual districts and three elected at-large, from which the council would choose its president.

The structure of Baltimore’s City Council was last changed substantially in 2002 when it moved from six three-member districts to 14 single-member districts. The council president continued to be elected by voters across the city.

These bills are part of a wider attempt by some City Council members who want, they say, to institute more checks and balances in local government, specifically by chipping away at Baltimore’s strong-mayor system. Dorsey’s proposal also would shift power away from the council president, a position he said comes with no accountability to the rest of the members.

“The council president has the power to exert a lot of influence over the body,” Dorsey said. “This is a more democratic way for this body to operate.”

Henry — though still in favor of his proposal for a smaller council — is co-sponsoring Dorsey’s legislation. Charter amendments still must be approved by voters after getting council approval, and Henry believes there should be a public conversation about the merits of each structure.

“The attitude I’m bringing to charter amendments is, if there’s good in the charter amendment, then I want to get it to the point where the people can choose,” Henry said. “There are good aspects of Ryan’s that are still superior to the status quo, so that’s why I support it.”

Dorsey’s proposal also would change the way a mayoral vacancy is filled. Right now, the council president automatically steps up — which is how Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young got the job after Catherine Pugh’s resignation.

Under Dorsey’s bill, council members would vote instead on who should ascend to the mayor’s post.

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“I’m not sure when we’re electing the council president, we’re also saying this person would be the best mayor,” he said.

These proposals could join a slew of government reform measures on the ballot for voters to consider.

City Council President Brandon Scott recently introduced legislation calling for the Board of Estimates — which approves all city purchases, contracts and settlements worth more than $25,000 — to be reconfigured.

The powerful five-member board 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 in line with their boss. Scott’s proposal would cut the mayoral appointees from the board, weakening the mayor’s control over city spending.

There also are proposed charter amendments that would give the council the ability to remove a mayor, create a city administrator position, reduce the number of votes needed to overturn a mayor’s veto and give council members more power over the budgeting process.

These attempts come after the “Healthy Holly” scandal in which Pugh sold hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of self-published children’s books to companies that did business with the city. She is awaiting sentencing Thursday after pleading guilty in November to federal fraud and tax evasion.

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Members of the progressive City Council say the scandal was a clear sign that government structures must change.

Still, Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said the council now has “reached the stage where we have a pile of charter amendments that are pending" and it can be confusing.

A City Council committee is holding a series of hearings across the city to get feedback on all of the proposed charter amendments. If approved by this summer, the proposals would appear on the November ballot.

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