Young calls for creation of citizen commission to review proposed charter amendments

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Members of the Baltimore City Council’s Equity and Structure Committee during their meeting Thursday, March 5, 2020, 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.

Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young announced Monday afternoon that he would be introducing emergency legislation at tonight’s council meeting, calling on City Council President Brandon Scott to create a commission of residents to review 13 charter amendments currently being considered by the council and its Equity and Structure Committee.

“When contemplating foundational changes to our structure of governance, we must make sure that the residents who’ll most be impacted have a true seat at the table,” Young said in a prepared statement, advocating for a Citizen Charter Amendments Review Commission.

The commission would have 15 citizens recommended by each member of the council, in addition to the deans of the local law schools. The resolution would require the commission to issue a report to the council on the 13 proposed charter amendments by June 1 — two months before the August deadline for placing a charter amendment on voters’ ballots.

Councilman Robert Stokes, who will introduce the legislation, and Councilman Leon Pinkett both backed the mayor’s idea for the commission.

“I support any action that allows for real participation from the public,” Stokes said in a statement. “This resolution offers us an opportunity to truly engage our constituents on important matters that will impact their lives going forward.”

Young’s announcement about the commission came hours after he penned a letter to Scott called on the council president to return three charter amendments, which were advanced by the Equity and Structure Committee on Thursday, to that committee for further discussion and more opportunities for public comment.

The three charter amendments, which are listed on tonight’s council agenda, are among a group of 13 charter amendments being considered to change the structure of city government.

In the letter, Young said the committee had “cherry-pick[ed]” the charter amendments in question and advanced them with “no reason and — no public interest served.” Young urged Scott to recommit the charter amendments to the Equity and Structure Committee, so that three-person committee can take more time to consider the bills and hear feedback from community members.

“While we can have honest disagreement about the merits of any particular proposed amendment, it should be obvious that such sweeping changes to our foundational governing documents should be made carefully and with a full understanding of their impacts,” Young said.

In response to Young’s letter, Scott said in a statement Monday afternoon that the council is listening the citizens of Baltimore on the issues the charter amendments address.

“The residents of Baltimore have been very clear – they want greater transparency and accountability in their local government. The public is counting on us to take big steps in the direction of progress. But we must do our work responsibly and intentionally, hearing from as many perspectives as possible,” Scott said,

He added that he looks forward to vetting and refining the 10 remaining charter amendments over the coming months so that the council is “putting forward the best charter amendments possible so the voters can have the ultimate say on the ballot.”

Among the three charter amendments that the committee advanced to the full council’s meeting tonight is a bill that seeks to limit a mayor’s veto power. That charter amendment, Bill 19-0380, would reduce the number of votes the council needs to override a mayor’s veto of ordinances and resolutions from three-fourths of the council to two-thirds. For the 15-member council, that lowers the threshold from 12 members to 10 members to override a mayoral veto.

The charter amendment would also eliminate altogether the mayor’s authority to veto line items during the annual budget process. That means that if a mayor disagreed with part of the budget, they would either have to veto the entire budget rather than specific line items or let the entire budget pass as is.

Councilman Bill Henry, who serves as the chairman of the Equity and Structure Committee, announced on Twitter on Monday morning that the line-item veto portion of Bill 19-0380 would be amended on the floor during the council’s Monday afternoon meeting.

K.C. Kelleher, Henry’s legislative director, confirmed to Baltimore Fishbowl that the line-item veto portion of the charter amendment would be struck, but the provision lowering the threshold to override a mayoral veto would remain.

Kelleher said the council decided to amend that charter amendment after committee members discussed the bill with members of the mayor’s office after the committee meeting Thursday.

Henry said during Thursday’s committee hearing that the four charter amendments had been met with “little to no opposition.” The committee ultimately advanced three of the bills, while holding the fourth bill regarding the removal of elected officials to consider an amendment to the petitioning process.

But Young disagreed with Henry about the supposed lack of opposition to those particular charter amendments.

“Respectfully, I reject that characterization,” Young said in his letter to Scott. “At the work session where these amendments were voted on, both the Law Department and Finance Department expressed serious concerns that, in isolation, these amendments might have disastrous impacts on City finances and the system of financial controls that have allowed us to achieve a AA bond rating.”

Henry said Thursday that some of the charter amendments with “more transformative changes,” like a bill that would change the composition of the Board of Estimates, could have a more significant impact on the city’s finances, and that was why the committee was taking more time to consider them.

But he said he thought concerns about the three charter amendments that the committee advanced that day were “a little overstated.”

Young said in his letter Monday that Henry, Henry’s office and Scott’s office had all assured the committee’s recommendations about the charter amendments “would be made holistically and after ample opportunity for public comment.”

The mayor’s chief of communications and government relations, Lester Davis, told Baltimore Fishbowl on Thursday the mayor’s office had been assured that the charter amendments would not move forward before April.

But Henry told the Baltimore Fishbowl on Thursday that “‘assured’ might be a strong word.”

“I said I did not expect there would be a need to move them forward before April,” he said.

After multiple committee hearings and community work sessions, Henry said the public had many opportunities to provide input on the charter amendments. Although he described attendance at those work sessions as “modest,” Henry said he listened to the opinions of community members who showed up.

Henry also highlighted in a tweet that the Equity and Structure Committee’s next community work session will be on March 16 at 6:30 p.m. at Fort Worthington Elementary/Middle School, located at 2710 E. Hoffman St.

This story was updated with Scott’s response to Young’s letter, as well as Young’s announcement regarding the commission of residents to review charter amendments.

Marcus Dieterle

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