Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young is urging the City Council to pump the brakes on a series of bills that could dramatically alter the way local government is structured.
Council members are pushing about a dozen charter amendments, including several that would weaken Baltimore’s strong-mayor system. With the council giving three of those measures preliminary approval Monday night, Young doubled down on asking lawmakers to slow their pace, move more deliberately and get additional public input.
“Simply put, there is no reason — and no public interest served — by advancing these amendments at this time,” he wrote in a letter Monday to City Council President Brandon Scott.
The two Democrats are running in a crowded field in the April 28 mayoral primary. The debate over the charter amendments reflected a growing tension between their two power centers in City Hall.
Scott said the slate of charter amendments are in response to residents who have been “very clear ... they want structural change in how government operates."
Young asked Scott to send the three bills back to the council’s Equity and Structure Committee, rather than allow the council to vote on them Monday. Scott refused to do so, and the council instead advanced all three.
The mayor also asked the council to create a commission of residents, city officials and local law school deans to study the proposed charter amendments and analyze their potential impact. Democratic City Councilman Robert Stokes introduced a resolution on that issue, and Scott assigned it to the structure committee for consideration.
The 13 proposals are wide-ranging: There is one charter amendment that would create a 15th council district, while another would shrink the council from 14 to nine members. Others would represent a major change in the way Baltimore has long done business at City Hall, such as reducing the size of the Board of Estimates, which votes on city spending, and giving the council power to remove a mayor in certain circumstances of misconduct.
Any charter amendment ultimately must be approved by the voters. The deadline to put charter amendments on the November ballot is July. Young’s spokesman, Lester Davis, said the council previously assured the administration that the bills wouldn’t move forward until the end of April.
Scott said the three bills approved Monday were “straightforward,” and not as controversial as some of the other proposals still up for debate. He pointed to Young’s decision in 2018, back when he was council president, to successfully fast-track in a day a charter amendment making it illegal to sell or lease city’s water system.
Democratic Councilman Bill Henry, chairman of the structure committee, said he and other elected officials are already soliciting public feedback through a series of hearings across the city. He questioned whether the mayor’s push for a separate commission was redundant.
“It feels a little bit too much like an effort hold back from what the people of Baltimore have made it clear they want us to do,” Henry said.
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The most controversial bill that advanced Monday night is one that would reduce the number of council votes needed to override a mayoral veto from three-fourths to two-thirds. Originally, the bill would’ve also taken away the mayor’s ability to issue line-item vetoes to the city’s budget.
It was opposed by the city’s Finance Department, which argued the current system allows city officials to resolve budget issues in an orderly way. Were the council to take away the mayor’s line-item veto authority and lower the threshold for a veto override, it would increase “the risk for a larger political stalemate or legal dispute over the entire budget, even if the items of disagreement are rather small,” the Finance Department added.
Henry said he heard the administration’s concerns, and the bill was amended to keep to the line-item veto power intact. “We’re willing to be open-minded in dealing with these issues,” he said.
The two other charter amendments the council advanced Monday would modify how long the council has to consider overriding a mayoral veto and require the charter itself be reviewed every 10 years.
The list of proposed charter amendments come in the wake of the “Healthy Holly” scandal that led to the resignation and prosecution of former Democratic Mayor Catherine Pugh. Pugh, who was recently sentenced to three years in federal prison, sold hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of self-published children’s books to groups that did business with the city.
Young said he was promised the council would provide people with “ample opportunity for public comment” before voting on the proposals. Some others, including the Greater Baltimore Committee, have also expressed concerns.
“It does a disservice,” Young wrote, “to our citizens and to future mayors and councils to move forward with any proposed charter changes after such limited public engagement and opportunity for wider council input."