How to ‘fix’ bro­ken gov­ern­ment

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - COMMENTARY - By Kris­ter­fer Bur­nett, Ryan Dorsey and Bill Henry

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.

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