Committee advances charter amendments to restructure government, but Young’s office has concerns

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Members of the Baltimore City Council’s Equity and Structure Committee discuss a group of charter amendments, including a bill that would lower the number of votes the council needs to override a mayor’s veto, and eliminating altogether mayoral authority to veto line items during the annual budget process. Image courtesy of Charm TV Baltimore.

The Baltimore City Council will vote March 9 on a charter amendment that would reduce the number of votes needed to override a mayor’s veto on ordinances and resolutions, and eliminate altogether the mayor’s authority to veto individual line items during the annual budget process.

The council’s Equity and Structure Committee on Thursday advanced the charter amendment, Bill 19-0380, to the full council for consideration next week.

The bill was among four charter amendments that Councilman Bill Henry, chair of the Equity and Structure Committee, said had been met with “little to no opposition.”

K.C. Kelleher, Henry’s legislative director, told Baltimore Fishbowl the four bills were the least controversial out of a group of charter amendments that the committee is considering.

“The committee decided to move forward with the least controversial charter amendments, ones that had wide-ranging community support and limited to no opposition from the administration, based on the feedback at our hearings thus far,” Kelleher said.

In addition to Bill 19-0380, the committee advanced two other charter amendments out of committee Thursday: one that would appoint a Charter Review Commission at least every 10 years, and another that would clarify the time within which the council may consider overriding a mayoral vote. A fourth charter amendment, regarding the removal of elected officials, was held to consider an amendment to the petitioning process. There are currently nine other charter amendments still in committee.

But an adviser in Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young’s office expressed surprise about the measures moving so quickly. The mayor’s chief of communications and government relations Lester Davis, said his office received assurances from Henry and Council President Brandon Scott’s offices that the charter amendments would not move forward before April, giving time for community members to give feedback on the charter amendments.

“‘Assured’ might be a strong word,” Henry said. “I said I did not expect there would be a need to move them forward before April.”

But after multiple committee hearings and work sessions, Henry said the public had many opportunities to provide input on the charter amendments.

Representatives of the city’s finance and law departments also raised concerns about Bill 19-0380 during Thursday’s committee hearing.

The Department of Finance submitted their own amendment to the charter amendment, which would effectively maintain the mayor’s current authority to veto budget line items.

In a January letter in opposition to the charter amendment, the finance department argued that the bill “threatens to upend the delicate fiscal structure and budget process that has served the City so well financially.”

Robert Cenname, Chief of the Bureau of the Budget and Management Research, explained during the committee hearing that each year the Board of Estimates sends a budget proposal to the city council. That proposal is submitted as one piece of legislation including various line item spending appropriations for each city agency and program.

The council can reduce or eliminate line items. Once the council passes its budget, the mayor can veto individual line items he or she disagrees with, or enact the budget as a whole if the mayor agrees with all of the council’s decisions.

Overriding a mayoral veto of any resolution or ordinance currently requires the votes of at least three-fourths of the council, but the charter amendment would lower that threshold to two-thirds of the council.

The charter amendment would also entirely eliminate the mayor’s authority to veto line items in the council’s budget.

Without the authority to veto individual line items, the mayor would either have to veto the entire budget or enact it in totality as is, Cenname said.

Cenname argued that eliminating the mayoral authority over line item vetoes would unnecessarily tie up the budget process as the mayor and council go back and forth.

“We don’t want to stop the functioning of city government for small disagreements,” he said.

But Henry said that is a good argument in favor of also lowering the number of council votes needed to override a mayor’s veto.

“I would think, given that, it would be beneficial to the city to not have a high threshold for overriding a mayoral veto because a higher threshold increases the possibility that we are stuck in that potential limbo.”

Cenname told the Baltimore Fishbowl that Bill 19-0380 and some of the other charter amendments could be “problematic: for the city’s bond rating.

Baltimore City has a AA bond rating, which Cenname said makes it less expensive for the city to conduct capital improvements.

“For a city that has the challenges that Baltimore does, that’s a really impressive score for us,” he said. “Having that rating means that we can quickly access the capital markets because we borrow money each year for capital projects and we get a really great interest rate on those deals because of that rating.”

But Cenname said the charter amendments could result in “budgetary stalemate” over small disagreements, and cause bond rating agencies to question Baltimore City’s financial stability.

“They send a signal to citizens and investors that it’s not a safe and a stable environment,” he said. “This environment we have today, it’s orderly, it’s a process and there’s a way to resolve disagreements within the process.”

If the City of Baltimore’s bond rating is downgraded, it could result in the city having to pay a higher interest rate on money they borrow, said Davis.

Henry said he understands the financial department’s concerns about charter amendments with “more transformative changes,” like the bill that would change the composition of the Board of Estimates.

But he said he thinks concerns about the three charter amendments that the committee advanced today are “a little overstated.”

Henry said the likelihood of the budgetary stalemate that Cenname is concerned about will be reduced by simultaneously lowering the threshold for the council to override a mayoral veto and eliminating the mayoral line item veto altogether.

Henry added that currently the council must overcome a high hurdle to override a mayor’s veto.

“The problem right now is the line item veto with the higher threshold puts the council at a huge legislative disadvantage,” he said.

Henry said many of the charter amendments are part of changing the city’s strong-mayor form of government, creating more balance between the mayor and council.

“My attitude and my motivation for the charter amendments that I’ve put in is not to eliminate the strong-mayor system of government but just to dial that strength down a little bit to the point where the council has a more reasonable chance of actually performing the check and balance that the people expect it to be able to perform.”

Henry said community members had ample time to weigh in on the charter amendments during two community meetings.

The Equity and Structure Committee held community work sessions on Feb. 3 and March 2. Two more are scheduled for March 16 and March 30, where discussion of the other charter amendments will take place.

Henry described attendance the two work sessions so far as “modest,” but he said if more people want to be part of the conversation they should attend the meetings.

“That’s the beautiful thing about democracy… Decisions are made by those who show up,” he said. “If those were the people who were interested enough and engaged enough in the discussion to come and be part of the public conversation, then those are the opinions that I’m going to listen to.”

The deadline to certify charter amendments is July 31, so Davis said he is not sure why the Equity and Structure Committee advanced three of the charter amendments Thursday to be voted on by the full council March 9.

“We weren’t quite clear why the council felt they needed to move the amendment through this quickly because they weren’t really against deadline,” he said.

Davis said he would like to see more public input gathered about the charter amendments before the council votes on any of them.

“Certainly with changes that are this fundamental and this big, we’ve got to be able to talk through them,” Davis said. “We’ve got to be able to have a robust conversation and not just a couple sparsely attended community meetings.”

Marcus Dieterle


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