City Coun­cil con­sid­ers re­form mea­sures

Char­ter amend­ments in­tro­duced in wake of ‘Healthy Holly’ scan­dal

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Talia Richman

Less than two months af­ter Bal­ti­more’s for­mer mayor pleaded guilty to con­spir­acy and tax eva­sion charges, the City Coun­cil is push­ing for­ward on a slate of govern­ment re­form mea­sures that in­clude giv­ing it­self the power to oust a mayor for mis­con­duct.

Coun­cil mem­bers in­tro­duced a num­ber of char­ter amend­ments in the wake of the wide-rang­ing “Healthy Holly” scan­dal, in which for­mer Demo­cratic Mayor Cather­ine Pugh sold hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars worth of self­pub­lished chil­dren’s books to com­pa­nies that did busi­ness with the city. Pugh pleaded guilty to fed­eral fraud and tax charges and is await­ing sen­tenc­ing.

In ad­di­tion to giv­ing the coun­cil the abil­ity to re­move a mayor, the amend­ments would cre­ate a city ad­min­is­tra­tor po­si­tion, re­duce the num­ber of votes needed to over­turn a mayor’s veto and give coun­cil mem­bers more power in the bud­get­ing process.

The re­forms wouldn’t elim­i­nate the so-called “strong mayor” sys­tem, some

thing coun­cil mem­bers have at­tempted un­suc­cess­fully in the past. But coun­cil mem­bers who sup­port the new mea­sures say they would in­sti­tute more checks and bal­ances.

“Whether we elim­i­nate the strong mayor sys­tem or not, there is value to see­ing how a sys­tem would work where we’ve just tried to make the bal­ance a lit­tle more even,” said Demo­cratic City Coun­cil­man Bill Henry, who is lead­ing the dis­cus­sions. “Th­ese are ways you can even the power dy­namic with­out elim­i­nat­ing the strong mayor en­tirely.”

A newly cre­ated coun­cil panel — the Eq­uity and Struc­ture Com­mit­tee — will dis­cuss the pro­pos­als Wed­nes­day at a hear­ing. If the coun­cil and mayor ap­prove them by July, they would go on the Novem­ber bal­lot as amend­ments to the city char­ter for vot­ers to con­sider.

“If Bal­ti­more is go­ing to reach its full prom­ise, it has to have a govern­ment struc­ture rooted in 21st- cen­tury prac­tices,” said Demo­cratic City Coun­cil Pres­i­dent Bran­don Scott, who is run­ning for mayor. “A city govern­ment that’s the same struc­ture as 1974 is not ca­pa­ble of pro­duc­ing re­sults the ci­ti­zens of Bal­ti­more de­serve in 2020.”

It’s im­por­tant, Henry said, to have dis­cus­sions about the mayor’s power dur­ing an elec­tion cy­cle.

More than a dozen Democrats are seek­ing the nom­i­na­tion to be­come Bal­ti­more’s next mayor in an April 28 pri­mary, in­clud­ing in­cum­bent Bernard C. “Jack” Young, Scott, for­mer Mayor Sheila Dixon, for­mer state Deputy At­tor­ney Gen­eral Thiru Vig­nara­jah, for­mer Bal­ti­more Po­lice Depart­ment spokesman T.J. Smith, state Sen. Mary Wash­ing­ton and for­mer T. Rowe Price ex­ec­u­tive Mary Miller.

“I re­ally wanted the con­ver­sa­tion about the struc­ture of city govern­ment to be some­thing that’s hap­pen­ing along with the con­ver­sa­tion of who should be run­ning it,” Henry said. “Once you have a set ad­min­is­tra­tion, con­ver­sa­tions about struc­ture tend to be con­sciously or un­con­sciously about the in­di­vid­u­als. You re­ally should have your struc­ture con­ver­sa­tions go­ing into the de­ci­sion process.”

A hear­ing Wed­nes­day at City Hall will give vot­ers a chance to weigh in. There will be other meet­ings around the city be­fore a fi­nal coun­cil vote.

The city’s Law Depart­ment says there are some prob­lems with the pro­pos­als.

Re­gard­ing the city ad­min­is­tra­tor po­si­tion, So­lic­i­tor Vic­tor Trevala wrote that the bill is “full of in­con­sis­ten­cies.” The leg­is­la­tion, as drafted, would cre­ate a se­nior po­si­tion akin to a chief ad­min­is­tra­tive of­fi­cer. The mayor is re­garded un­der the bill as the city’s CEO. The law depart­ment be­lieves such an ad­min­is­tra­tor’s of­fice could grow unchecked and du­pli­cate may­oral func­tions.

“When two of­fices pos­sess par­al­lel or over­lap­ping re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, it raises con­cerns about the over­all func­tion­ing and ac­count­abil­ity of both,” Trevala wrote in an as­sess­ment of the leg­is­la­tion. If the mayor is not in­tended to be “merely the cer­e­mo­nial fig­ure­head” of city govern­ment, he wrote, that of­fice must re­main em­pow­ered to over­see and di­rect city op­er­a­tions.

Scott, who in­tro­duced that leg­is­la­tion, said cities such as Wash­ing­ton and Philadel­phia have a pro­fes­sional ad­min­is­tra­tor who han­dles day-to-day gov­ern­men­tal op­er­a­tions. He said that frees up the mayor to han­dle high-level func­tions, like re­duc­ing crime.

“It al­lows them to be the boss, to have that vi­sion,” he said. “The mayor is still held re­spon­si­ble, but there has to be a bet­ter struc­ture to op­er­ate.”

The coun­cil in April con­fronted the is­sue of Pugh con­tin­u­ing in of­fice while she was un­der crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion, call­ing for her to step down — a re­quest be­lieved to be un­prece­dented in city his­tory. The cur­rent char­ter in­cludes no pro­vi­sion for the coun­cil re­mov­ing a mayor, ac­cord­ing to the law depart­ment. Pugh didn’t resign un­til sev­eral weeks later, af­ter FBI and IRS agents raided City

Hall and her homes.

The char­ter amend­ment would al­low the coun­cil to re­move a mayor with a three­fourths vote if the mayor has en­gaged in a felony or mis­de­meanor in of­fice, or in other mis­con­duct, based on charges from the city’s leg­isla­tive in­ves­ti­ga­tions com­mit­tee or the city’s in­spec­tor gen­eral. The coun­cil has 14 mem­bers, as well as the coun­cil pres­i­dent.

The veto over­ride mea­sure would re­duce the ma­jor­ity needed to pass an or­di­nance into law over a mayor’s ob­jec­tion from three-fourths of the coun­cil to two-thirds.

The coun­cil has pushed for dramatic changes to the city’s power struc­ture in the past. In 2016, then- Coun­cil Pres­i­dent Young backed a mea­sure that would’ve ef­fec­tively ended the “strong mayor” form of govern­ment. It would have taken away may­oral con­trol of the Board of Es­ti­mates — which ap­proves all city spend­ing above $25,000. The Demo­cratic mayor at the time, Stephanie Rawl­ings- Blake, ve­toed the bill.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.