How to ‘fix’ broken government
The recent scandals in Baltimore involving the mayor and certain city businesses and institutions evoke shock, dismay and anger. While we are not out of this mess yet, we must look to the future and start fixing what is broken in our government’s structure so that this moment can become a true turning point in our history.
As legislators on the Baltimore City Council, we’ve developed a package of reform proposals to strengthen existing ethics and financial disclosure rules, make it easier for city employees to report wrongdoing, and curb abuses of power by adding leadership checks and balances, while still preserving the beneficial aspects of a “strong-mayor” system.
Perhaps the most obvious deficiency we need to address at this time is the lack of a process to remove a mayor for cause. Although processes do exist for removal of the comptroller, the council president, and individual City Council members, there is no similar provision in the charter for the mayor. The absence of such a removal provision is impossible to justify and has caused painful uncertainty and confusion twice in the last decade. Councilman Kristerfer Burnett has proposed an amendment that would allow for a mayor’s removal; if passed by the City Council and signed by the acting mayor, this proposal will go on the next general election ballot for ratification by the voters in November 2020.
Next, we need to reform ethics and financial disclosure requirements and enforcement. Councilman Ryan Dorsey has introduced three proposals: a bill to clarify and strengthen the law on financial disclosures, including adding new penalties for failure to file; a bill creating whistleblower protections to enable city employees to bring wrongdoing to light without fear of retaliation; and a bill making the city ethics department more independent by appointing the inspector general to be its executive director. Together, these proposals will ensure that those occupying the highest offices of city government are forthcoming and truthful about their relevant business and financial dealings, empower independent parties to hold officials accountable, and protect those whose disclosure of information serves the public interest.
Finally, our strong-mayor system is overdue for a rebalancing. While a strongmayor system is one of the best structures for the effective administration of government in a large city, the mayor is too strong in Baltimore — unusually so compared to any of our peer cities. Our charter simply does not provide the checks and balances needed for a properly functioning democracy.
Councilman Bill Henry previously proposed two charter amendments to address this imbalance, which we embrace again today. The first proposal would reduce the number of votes needed to overturn a mayoral veto of any legislation from three-quarters of the members to twothirds, in keeping with most legislative bodies.
This amendment would also eliminate the mayor’s line-item veto power regarding the budget. If this proposal is passed, signed and enacted by voters, the council will gain significant bargaining power with the mayor that will force discussion, collaboration and compromise: the hallmarks of well-functioning government. Introduced in the last term as CB #12-0111, this charter amendment was passed out of committee but failed to pass the Council on 2nd reader. We expect that this time will be different.
The second proposal would allow the City Council to add funds to the city's annual operating and capital budgets, as long as the City Council also approves cuts elsewhere in the budget sufficient to pay for the additions.
The mayor would still retain most of their control over the budget. In cases where a supermajority of council members agree to a different set of priorities, the majority should be allowed to express those priorities — that’s a basic premise of democracy and one that works in other cities around the country. In the last term, CB #12-0113 was passed out of committee and subsequently passed by the council but was vetoed by the previous mayor. Again, we’d hope that a reprise of this legislation would fare better today than it did three years ago.
Restoring Baltimore will require true reform. The proposals outlined above set our city up for success by ensuring that the balance of power is not an impediment to the fair, transparent and responsive government that our citizens deserve. We must get started on creating that future today.
Kristerfer Burnett (Kristerfer.Bur[email protected]timorecity.gov) has represented the 8th District on the Baltimore City Council since 2016. Ryan Dorsey ([email protected]timorecity.gov) has represented the 3rd District on the Baltimore City Council since 2016. Bill Henry ([email protected]timorecity.gov) has represented the 4th District on the Baltimore City Council since 2007.