A means to re­move mayor isn’t the only char­ter change needed

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - NATION & WORLD -

With each in­sis­tence from Mayor Cather­ine Pugh and her ad­vis­ers that she in­tends to come back to of­fice when her health al­lows — de­spite a unan­i­mous call for her to re­sign from the City Coun­cil and from the city’s House del­e­ga­tion be­cause of the fall­out from the Healthy Holly scan­dal — it be­comes clearer that the lack of any means to re­move a mayor from of­fice short of a crim­i­nal con­vic­tion is a prob­lem. But that’s not the only change to the char­ter coun­cil mem­bers should ex­plore.

As it stands, Ms. Pugh could re­sume her du­ties as mayor at any time and face a coun­cil that is uni­fied in its be­lief that she has brought shame onto the city with her six-fig­ure deals to sell her self-pub­lished chil­dren’s books to peo­ple and en­ti­ties that do busi­ness with the city or have significan­t in­ter­ests in the power she has wielded as an elected of­fi­cial. That prom­ises a year and a half of grid­lock un­til a new mayor is sworn in after the 2020 elec­tion. Or she could re­main on leave for that en­tire time — per­haps hold­ing onto her of­fice as a bar­gain­ing chip should the in­ves­ti­ga­tion by the state pros­e­cu­tor’s of­fice turn her eth­i­cal prob­lems into le­gal ones — keep­ing the city in limbo (and on the hook for her $180,000 salary). Some have sug­gested that the state con­sti­tu­tion al­lows for the gov­er­nor to re­move the mayor un­der cer­tain cir­cum­stances, but re­views of case law and in­ter­views with le­gal ex­perts by The Sun now and dur­ing the scan­dal in­volv­ing for­mer Mayor Sheila Dixon found that the ques­tion is far from clear-cut. And in any case, Baltimore’s fate should not rest in the hands of the gov­er­nor, whose in­ter­ests may or may not align with those of city res­i­dents.

Some Mary­land towns do al­low for vot­ers to pe­ti­tion an elected of­fi­cial to a re­call elec­tion, but cre­at­ing a mech­a­nism for the coun­cil to re­move a mayor, as it can for one of its own mem­bers or the city comp­trol­ler, seems the more sen­si­ble choice. But the pre­cise mech­a­nism of that power will need some con­sid­er­a­tion. Be­cause the coun­cil is a uni­cam­eral leg­is­la­ture, a ver­sion of the im­peach­ment-trial pro­ce­dure em­ployed in the fed­eral and state con­sti­tu­tions isn’t pos­si­ble. It would make sense to re­quire a su­per­ma­jor­ity of some kind to en­sure that re­moval only takes place in egre­gious cir­cum­stances and not just as a re­sult of pol­i­tics, but what should the thresh­old be? As it stands, the coun­cil can re­move a comp­trol­ler by a ma­jor­ity vote, a coun­cil pres­i­dent by a two-thirds vote and a coun­cil mem­ber by a three-fourths vote.

An­other con­sid­er­a­tion for the coun­cil is whether to set a time limit on a mayor’s leave of ab­sence. Some coun­ties (Anne Arun­del and Howard, for in­stance) have char­ter pro­vi­sions al­low­ing for the re­moval of a county ex­ec­u­tive if he or she has been un­able to per­form the of­fice’s du­ties for 180 days or more, even ab­sent any malfea­sance.

While the coun­cil is re-eval­u­at­ing the bounds of our strong mayor sys­tem, it should also con­sider re­forms to the Board of Es­ti­mates and bud­get process. Cur­rently, the mayor con­trols three of the five votes on the board, lim­it­ing its power as an ap­pro­pri­ate check on mu­nic­i­pal spend­ing. Re­struc­tur­ing it to in­clude just the mayor, comp­trol­ler and coun­cil pres­i­dent (much like the Board of Pub­lic Works on the state level) could make it more ef­fec­tive — but only if the board’s pow­ers and du­ties were also re­formed. Cur­rently, the Board of Es­ti­mates plays a role in the bud­get process that the Board of Pub­lic Works does not, and re­mov­ing the mayor’s con­trol of the body with­out chang­ing that would di­lute fis­cal re­spon­si­bil­ity rather than en­hance it. Other func­tions of the board, for ex­am­ple re­or­ga­niz­ing mu­nic­i­pal con­tracts, should be re­turned to the mayor as well. The coun­cil should con­sider a more de­tailed re­form of the board than it has in the past.

Coun­cil­man Eric Costello, who chairs the com­mit­tee that han­dles char­ter amend­ments, has said that he wants to hold off on hear­ings for such re­forms un­til the sum­mer of 2020, ar­gu­ing that they won’t go on the bal­lot un­til the fol­low­ing fall any­way and that the most im­por­tant thing for the city right now is to fo­cus on sta­bil­ity and con­ti­nu­ity in the govern­ment. While we ap­pre­ci­ate his sentiment, we think it’s im­por­tant for the city’s lead­ers to demon­strate that they’re se­ri­ous about re­form and for vot­ers to have a good idea of what changes may be in store for the city govern­ment’s struc­ture be­fore they vote in the all-im­por­tant Demo­cratic pri­mary next April. We urge coun­cil mem­bers to be­gin that con­ver­sa­tion with the pub­lic sooner rather than later.

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