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Former Baltimore mayors oppose government restructuring proposals introduced by the likely next mayor

A panel of former Baltimore mayors _ Sheila Dixon, Kurt Schmoke, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Martin O'Malley _ spoke on a virtual panel Monday with Greater Baltimore Committee President Don Fry, top right.
A panel of former Baltimore mayors _ Sheila Dixon, Kurt Schmoke, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Martin O'Malley _ spoke on a virtual panel Monday with Greater Baltimore Committee President Don Fry, top right.

A panel of Baltimore’s former mayors spoke out against two proposals to restructure local government, both of which have been championed by the Democratic nominee for the city’s top job.

Sheila Dixon, Martin O’Malley, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Kurt Schmoke joined the Greater Baltimore Committee for an online discussion Monday of what they learned during their tenures. All are Democrats.

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They were asked about two bills proposed by City Council President Brandon Scott, the Democratic mayoral nominee who is heavily favored to win November’s general election. One would shrink the size of the city’s powerful spending panel and the other would install a city administrator to serve alongside the mayor and oversee day-to-day operations.

“I would not be in favor of either of those two proposals,” said O’Malley, who served as mayor between 1999 and 2007, before leaving for the governor’s mansion. “We should not lightly throw out the strong-mayor system.”

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Schmoke, now the University of Baltimore president, said he’s been urging mayoral candidates to “focus on the people in government, not the structure of government.”

“I don’t believe it’s the structure that creates inefficiencies or corruption," he said. “It’s the particular individuals you have in government.”

Scott trumpeted the idea of creating a “21st-century” government structure during the primary campaign, saying City Hall needs to professionalize the way it operates. He ensured that voters will be able to consider the city administrator proposal on November’s ballot by leading the council to override Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young’s veto of the charter amendment.

Under Scott’s leadership, the City Council has pushed a slew of charter amendments that would reshape the balance of power in Baltimore.

Scott said he’s not surprised by the former mayors' public stances. He said he’s privately spoken with all of them about the proposals.

“We just disagree on this issue,” Scott said.

He rejected the suggestion that the change would weaken the mayor’s power, and pointed to cities such as Washington with a city administrator.

He said it would improve city operations to have a nonpolitical appointee serve alongside the mayor. There’s not a successful $3 billion entity, Scott argues, where the CEO is also the chief operating officer.

Independent mayoral candidate Bob Wallace is opposed to the idea, too. He’s accused Scott of wanting to “play mayor” while passing off responsibilities to a city administrator.

Ballot questions typically pass easily if there is not an aggressive opposition campaign.

Also at issue is whether to shrink the size of the city’s spending panel, the Board of Estimates. Scott originally proposed a charter amendment that would limit the mayor’s power over the purchases and contracts.

Currently, the five-member spending panel must approve all city purchases, contracts and settlements worth more than $25,000. Three members are elected citywide: the mayor, the council president and the comptroller. But the other two board members, the city solicitor and the public works director, serve at the pleasure of the mayor, meaning he or she effectively controls their votes.

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Originally, Scott looked to cut the mayoral appointees from the board, giving the mayor one vote instead of three. But that raised questions about gridlocked votes stalling important contract approvals.

In July, Scott postponed a vote on the bill as it was written to allow for more time to study how other large cities tackle this issue. He vows to push forward on restructuring the Board of Estimates by the end of this year.

Dixon, who ran against Scott in the primary, said shrinking the Board of Estimates would make city business drag on and become more politicized.

The four mayors also shared reflections from their tenures and offered advice for the city’s next leader. They preached the importance of hiring good people, of being decisive — and of finding time to exercise.

Schmoke said he realized early on that he could “win elections without the business community, but I can’t govern without the business community.”

“That’s truer now,” he said. “So many of the problems that the city faces have to be dealt with through public-private partnerships.”

He said mayors face the challenge of having “more will than wallet” in the cash-strapped city. That will be especially true for the next leader, who will have to contend with the economic turmoil spurred by the coronavirus pandemic.

“This recession is going to be even worse,” said Dixon, comparing it to the Great Recession that occurred during her tenure as mayor from 2007 to 2010.

It will be vital, she added, to forge strong partnerships with state and federal partners to get Baltimore the resources it needs.

The ex-mayors agreed that tackling violent crime and the homicide rate is paramount.

“We are now viewed internationally as one of the most violent cities in the world,” Schmoke said. “We can’t tolerate that.”

The two priorities for any leader right now, he said, should be solving crime and grime.

Still, the former mayors agreed that the next mayor faces challenges they could not have imagined.

“There’s no mayor that will be taking office or is currently taking office that is operating in a world that us on this screen have operated in,” Rawlings-Blake said. “The pandemic has changed everything.”

Not all of Baltimore’s living former mayors participated in the Zoom call. Democrat Catherine Pugh reported in June to a federal prison in Alabama to serve a three-year sentence for fraud.

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