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by Ian Round8:55 amFeb 11, 20200

City Council advances good government bills

Bill Henry wants to shrink the Council and introduce open primaries or ranked-choice voting. Ryan Dorsey’s legislation strengthening the ethics board advances, too.

Above: Comptroller Bill Henry says the city needs to protect employees as they return to the workplace. (Fern Shen, 2019)

The Baltimore City Council advanced four bills on Monday intended to improve accountability and transparency.

Councilman Bill Henry introduced three bills, two of which begin the process of amending the city charter.

One would reduce the size of the Council. Another would give subpoena power to the city auditor. The third asks the state to allow the city to introduce open primaries or ranked-choice voting.

Henry wants to reduce the legislative body to six single-member districts, with three at-large representatives.

“In a smaller City Council, each member is harder to marginalize,” Henry said.

In the past when the body was made up of six three-member districts, every resident had three representatives, plus the Council president. When the city moved to 14 single-member districts, Henry said, “we cut the number of people you can call for help in half,” the Council member and the Council president.

Residents in the proposed rearrangement would have four people to call for help. Henry is seeking to have two seats elected at large: a vice president and the Council’s representative to the Planning Commission. Currently, the Council president is the only member elected citywide.

Henry, who is running for comptroller against six-term incumbent Joan M. Pratt, says sunlight is the best disinfectant. He said an auditor with subpoena power would make the city more transparent. If elected, he would be the auditor’s boss.

“We do not have the culture of compliance that some other places have,” Henry said.

Opening up the Primary

In support of ranked-choice voting or open primaries, Henry used the example of the crowded mayoral race, which features 25 Democratic candidates.

“There is a good chance that someone will win that race with less than 30% of the vote,” he said. With open primary elections, all voters would be able to participate because the primaries wouldn’t be partisan.

“Under these circumstances, we could find ourselves in a city of well over half a million being governed by people who were the first choice of only a few thousand residents – a profoundly anti-democratic result,” the first draft of the resolution reads.

The ranked choice system is credited with improving consensus among voters. It rewards candidates who are voters’ second or third choices over more divisive candidates with enthusiastic bases and strong opposition.

Empowering the Ethics Board

Meanwhile, a bill sponsored by Councilman Ryan Dorsey, which would put the inspector general in charge of the city’s ethics board, passed second reader, practically insuring that it will be sent to the mayor for his signature.

The bill requires the inspector general’s office to provide staff to the ethics board. Currently, the city does not spend any money on ethics enforcement. Supporting the bill, Inspector General Isabel Mercedes Cumming has requested funding for two staffers and other expenses.

The ethics board is now managed by the Department of Legislative Reference. Without a budget for ethics enforcement, Legislative Reference employees take time away from their primary responsibilities to assist the five-member board.

“This model is ineffective and reactive,” Cumming wrote to the Council.

The ethics board strongly supports the bill, according to Deputy Ethics Counsel Anthony DeFranco, noting that the missions of the OIG and the ethics board “often overlap in that both organizations exist to ensure honesty and transparency in city government and accountability to the citizens of Baltimore.”

Other Council Happenings

Dorsey’s bill ending the prohibition on playing in the street was recommended favorably with amendments out of the transportation committee. Dorsey said kids don’t need a law as a deterrent; they know when the street is unsafe.

“I would have to believe that it is their knowledge that it is illegal” that keeps them out of the street, he said. There are abundant ways to keep children safe “without criminalizing the simple act of play.”

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke introduced a bill banning the use – but not the sale – of certain pesticides. The bill bans two pesticides anywhere in the city (glyphosate and chlorpyrifos) and one only on city-owned property (neonicotinoid).

The clerk had trouble pronouncing the names of the chemicals, leading Clarke to say, “I’ve worked hard on this bill, and I’ve worked even harder on the pronunciation. Thank you, Mr. Announcer, for your brave efforts.”

Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young on Sunday signed the Elijah Cummings Healing Cities Act, sponsored by Councilman Zeke Cohen, which requires the city to train employees on trauma-responsive and -informed care and service.

The bill-signing ceremony took place a year and a day after a shooting at Frederick Douglass High School, which prompted students to demand a school environment that wouldn’t re-traumatize them.

Cohen’s mother is a clinical social worker and professor; his wife and father are psychiatrists. “Definitely a lens toward mental health in my family informed my work and this bill,” Cohen told The Brew, although he stressed the students’ activism.

The Council’s Health Committee, chaired by Kristerfer Burnett, will hold a hearing on opioids tomorrow at 5 p.m.

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