Center Maryland: Should Baltimore alter its “strong executive” form of government?

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Editor’s note: The following commentary appeared on CenterMaryland.org on March 11, 2016.

By Donald C. Fry

Try to strike up a conversation about city charters or charter amendments to the average citizen and you’re likely to be met with a blank stare and everyone’s rapid departure from your company.

But the recent passage by the Baltimore City Council of a charter amendment to earmark spending for youth programs and a subsequent council override of a veto of that legislation by Baltimore’s mayor highlight the debate on charter amendments that alter the role of the mayor.

There are other charter amendments bubbling at City Hall that could affect Baltimore’s future mayors. This all comes as Baltimore voters are looking to elect a new mayor.

Combined, the recently approved amendment, which must be ratified by voters in November, and the other charter proposals hold the potential of altering Baltimore’s “strong executive”form of government – under which the mayor sets the vision for the city and controls top priorities, like the budget.

With the April 26 primary election just weeks away and city voters looking at electing not only a new mayor but a dramatically changed city council, the charter amendments raise anew the question of what form of government city residents want and need at this unsettled juncture in the city’s history.

For those who don’t know, Baltimore follows a legal document called a charter that spells out the powers, duties and various structures of how the government will operate and what rights its citizens have. Some compare it to a constitution on the local level.

The city charter is meant to serve as a keystone for the smooth operations of complex city government branches, agencies and budgets.

A fundamental principle in Baltimore’s charter provides for an executive, or “strong mayor,” form of government. The mayor serves as the most visible elected leader, setting the budget, social and other priorities – and hopefully articulating a clear vision for the city’s future and the roadmap to get there.

In short, the charter envisions Baltimore’s mayor leading and inspiring. Historically this has served the city well.

Some, though, believe charter changes are needed because Baltimore’s strong mayor form of government has led to the mayor’s position becoming too strong, and suggest it’s time to rethink and restructure that seat of power.

With all of this in mind, let’s take a look at the recently passed charter amendment establishing the earmark for youth programs and the other charter amendment proposals being pursued.

The charter amendment that has passed requires for 3 percent of the city’s discretionary spending to be set aside to fund city youth programs. There is no question that funding programs for youths are important and need to be adequately funded. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has argued, that if the amendment is ratified by voters in the November general election it would tie the hands of future mayors and their fiscal responsibility.

Suppose another recession rolls around and impacts city revenues? Future mayors would have to earmark the 3 percent from the discretionary budget for youth programs, even though they may need money for other vital areas of a tight budget. The amendment also opens the door for others to seek future mandated spending for other budget categories or city programs, further diminishing the budgetary authority of the mayor.

When you put this in context with the fact that the mayor estimates the city will have a $75 million deficit in the new fiscal year that begins July 1 (requiring tough budget choices),one starts to see that the mayor’s role when it comes to fiscal management needs to be strong, not compromised.

Another charter amendment that has been proposed would diminish the mayor’s control of the Board of Estimates. This powerful body awards city contracts and executes other fiscal matters.

Currently the board is made up of five members: the mayor, president of the City Council, comptroller, city solicitor, and director of public works. Under the proposed amendment the city solicitor and director of public works would be dropped from the board.

These two positions are appointed by the mayor. The passage of this amendment would remove the power of the mayor over this body by eliminating two of the mayor’s most reliable allies on the Board of Estimates.

Some argue the proposal should not be seen as taking power away from the mayor, but rather increasing the power of the comptroller and council president.

Another charter amendment that’s been introduced would allow the City Council to add funding in specific areas of the mayor’s proposed operating and capital budget as long cuts of equal value are matched to the additional funding provided and the overall budget remains balanced.

In other words, council members through budget maneuvers could effectively set different spending priorities than those outlined by the mayor in the submission of his or her annual budget. This charter amendment directly affects the mayor’s vital responsibility and control over the city budget.

The budget is one of the key vehicles by which the Baltimore mayor can lay out a vision and a strategic plan to address challenges, leverage opportunities, make good on election promises, and in essence lead and support residents, business and others to make the city a better place.

While some mayors may not have fully utilized the leverage the power the city charter provides, think of former Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer. Although he was a leader in his own right, one could argue the power provided in the charter allowed him to lead to his full potential and take the city in new directions, which still resonate today.

Observations made in a March 20, 2015 letter from the city solicitor’s office outlining legal guidance on the charter amendment proposal that would change the composition of the Board of Estimates are worth considering in the broader context of charter amendments and their impact on mayoral powers.

The letter states that Baltimore’s “executive form of government requires the Mayor to retain control over the Board of Estimates.Without such control, the Mayor would be unable to establish and implement his or her plan of economic development, which the City Charter requires.”

The closing sentence of this letter is also worth considering. Changing the composition of the Board of Estimates, it states,“could lead to a less efficient, less financially stable and more costly government.”

There are also potential symbolic repercussions in altering the charter as it pertains to the power of the mayor. Although it remains an economic engine for the State of Maryland, over the last couple of decades the city has lost some of its political influence to the growing suburban counties. To help counter balance that changing political dynamic, it is important for the city to have a chief executive that has power, influence and weight not only at city hall and in the communities, but also in the halls of Annapolis and Washington, D.C.

The process of amending a charter, as well as a constitution, is intended to be difficult. Amendments should only be adopted only when absolutely necessary or the current charter provision has become ineffective, abused, or is no longer applicable to the current conditions or state of affairs.

In the next month or two these charter amendments will be acted on by the Baltimore City Council and, if passed, will be on the November general election ballot. It is incumbent on members of the city council, and the voters, to seriously consider the need and necessity of these proposed changes. The current structure has served the city well over time and absent a compelling reason for changing the balance of power the current system should remain intact.

Donald C. Fry is the President and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a frequent contributor to Center Maryland.

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