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Campaign 2020

Politicsby Ian Round3:06 pmOct 2, 20200

A guide to municipal bonds and charter amendments on the ballot

A rundown of proposals before voters, including several that would chip away at Baltimore’s “strong mayor” system, giving the City Council more clout

Above: Let the mayor hire a city administrator? Give the Council the power to oust a mayor for misconduct? Proposals on the ballot propose changes for Baltimore city government. (Mark Reutter)

After the June primary, all but one of the political races in this heavily Democratic city are foregone conclusions – and it’s probably safe to say that few local voters are still deliberating over their choice for president.

But for those who haven’t already voted – ballots have been, finally, showing up in city mailboxes – there’s still homework to do, heading into the general election.

There are four bond issues and seven charter amendments on Baltimore ballots as well as two state-level measures.

Bond issues and proposed charter amendments can seem convoluted and confusingly written. That makes it tough to know how they would materially affect the city.

Before making it to the ballot, these measures were each passed through the standard legislative process. The Equity and Structure Committee, chaired by Councilman Bill Henry, which held hearings and gathered public testimony before advancing the bills to the full Council.

Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young signed some of them and allowed others to proceed without his signature. (The Council overrode three of his vetoes.)

But the mayor’s signature did not make them law. Whether or not they become law is up to you.

Many of the charter amendments would reduce the mayor’s power, which many Council members – including Baltimore’s likely next mayor, Brandon Scott – argue is too great.

Several proposed amendments didn’t make it to the ballot, including ones that would change the composition of the Council, create term limits and change the composition of the Board of Estimates.

There’s more to the amendments than what you can read on your ballot, so we’ve included links to the full text of each one.

Not even sure what the charter is? It’s the city’s constitution, and you can learn more about it here.

Questions A-D: Bond issues

These measures would allow the city to borrow a total of up to $160 million in bonds.

Question A would authorize the city to sell $12 million in bonds for affordable housing; B would authorize $38 million for school construction; C would authorize $38 million for “community and economic development”; and D would authorize $72 million for public infrastructure.

(These items represent routine borrowing and were not considered by the Equity and Structure Committee.)

Question E: Charter Review Commission (Bill 19-0441)

This amendment would create a commission to review Baltimore’s charter and propose changes at least once every 10 years. It would  comprise 23 members, with the Council controlling most votes.

The mayor, Council president and comptroller would each appoint three members to the commission, and each Council member would appoint one.

Question F: Ordinance of Estimates (Bill 19-0379)

This measure would increase the Council’s power over the budget, but it doesn’t go as far as some opponents of the “strong mayor” system would like.

Currently, the Council can only make cuts to the mayor’s proposed budget. This amendment would empower the Council to move certain items around the budget, but not increase it.

Question G: Vetoes (Bill 19-0380)

This one would make it easier for the Council to override a veto by the mayor.

It currently takes 12 votes to override a veto; this would reduce the number to 10. That means the mayor would need more than four allies on the Council to exercise influence over legislation.

Young vetoed this bill but, ironically, the Council overrode him.

Question H: Veto timing (Bill 20-0467)

This amendment would remove a loophole known as the “pocket veto.”

That loophole allows the mayor to veto legislation without giving the Council the opportunity to override it, based on the body’s meeting schedule.

The City Charter requires that any Council override of a mayoral veto take place between 5 and 20 days after the mayor sends the bill back with written objections.

If it happens, because of the Council’s schedule, that no meeting is on the calendar within that time period, they must hold a special session. (Momentum to scrap this requirement caught on after Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke was unable to muster the votes for a special session to rescue her $15 minimum wage bill from former Mayor Catherine Pugh’s veto.)

The Council overrode Young’s veto on this one, too.

Question I: Removal of elected officials (Bill 19-0381)

With 12 votes, the Council would be able to remove elected officials for “incompetency, misconduct in office, willful neglect of duty” or other malfeasance. Under this amendment, the accused official would be allowed a hearing before the Council.

The issue arose last year when Pugh was under investigation by the State Prosecutor for her corrupt Healthy Holly book scheme and threatened to return from her leave of absence and resume her duties at City Hall. The Council was technically powerless to stop her.

Question J: City Auditor (Bill 20-0491)

This amendment would give the city auditor the power to subpoena documents from any city employee or entity accepting city funds.

Councilman Bill Henry, who is set to become the next comptroller after winning a pro-transparency primary campaign, would be the auditor’s boss.

Question K: City Administrator (Bill 19-0382)

This amendment would create a chief administrative officer, hired by the mayor, to carry out day-to-day government functions.

Council President Scott, the Democrat likely to become mayor in December, advocated this amendment. Scott said it’s considered best-practice to create this position, as many of Maryland’s largest jurisdictions have done. He argues it would “professionalize” and depoliticize city government operations.

Opponents argue that Scott wants to give a six-figure salary to an ally to do the mayor’s job for him.

Mayor Young vetoed this bill, but the Council overrode him.

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