Commission that reviewed Baltimore’s charter suggests changing council makeup, budgeting process and more

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A mayor-appointed commission of 55 residents, business leaders, bureaucrats and researchers has recommended the city consider modifying its charter to switch from a one-year to a two-year budgeting process, change the rules for how the spending board can accept bids for jobs from vendors and “reexamine” the structure and representation of the council after the upcoming 2020 census.

The recommendations, which also include eliminating obsolete and gender-biased language from the city’s charter and other changes, are laid out in a final report from the Mayor’s Charter Commission.

Mayor Catherine Pugh formed the body in January to comb through the 220-page document laying out mayoral and city council powers, agencies’ duties and a host of other rules governing local government. It was the first review of Baltimore’s charter in 24 years.

“The majority of what we did was eliminate obsolete language or just sort of simplify things,” said Matthew Garbark, Pugh’s deputy chief of staff and the commission’s co-chair, of the effort. “We’re not making massive policy changes or anything. There’s a few things in there, but it shouldn’t be anything shattering or groundbreaking.”

Perhaps the biggest alteration suggested in the commission’s report wouldn’t even happen for another few years. “After the 2020 census,” the report says, “the Commission recommends the Mayor and City Council reexamine” the number of Baltimore City Council seats, the option of restoring multi-member districts (i.e., two councilpersons for a single district) and appointments of at-large members.”

Baltimore switched from a system of six districts with three council members apiece to 14 single-member districts in 2003.

The commission’s conversation on a potential reshaping of the council makeup drew “a lot of different perspectives,” Garbark said. “Some wanted it bigger, some wanted it smaller… There was no conclusive recommendation except that anything that is done should be done after the 2020 census.”

Another notable suggestion: A task force to study the worth of switching to a biennial budget process, as opposed to the current annual one.

“Every year we sort of get into this crunch where it’s everyone running around and the budget is all hands on deck,” Garbark said. “There isn’t a lot of time to really dig into some of the programmatic details.”

On the flipside, he pointed out that the city depends heavily on grants from federal agencies and others that aren’t always guaranteed two years out, which would make it more difficult to plan spending based on those funds.

The commission also recommends Pugh appoint a committee to improve public engagement about the budget process. The lack of public comment on the recently approved $2.8 billion budget on Taxpayer Night was a sticking point in particular for Councilman Ryan Dorsey, who harped on the issue online. (Dorsey ultimately joined Brandon Scott and Zeke Cohen in voting against the spending package.)

Another commission recommendation concerns how the Board of Estimates decides on vendors. The report said the spending board should create a “review panel to adjudicate bid and contract disputes before an item is submitted to the Board of Estimates.”

At present, Garbark explained, the city charter allows contracts to be awarded only via a low-bid process—in which the contractor that blindly asks for the lowest compensation gets the job—or a high-score process, in which applications are scored and the highest one wins.

“The recommendation was to authorize another form of contract award,” he said. “We wanted to loosen the strings a little bit as far as what the charter allows us to do.”

Some of the commission’s work concerned cleaning up the charter’s biased language against women and removing dated or repetitive wording. The report highlights instances where the charter assumes agency commissioners or the mayor are men, or where it calls for public notice via “publication in a newspaper of general circulation,” rather than opening the option to a variety of outlets.

Pugh’s office accepted the commission’s recommendations.

“I am pleased with the work the Commission was able to do in the time frame given,” the mayor said in a statement. “They got to work and provided reasonable, common sense recommendations that will improve City operations.”

The full report can be read here.

Ethan McLeod
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