Once again, a member of the Baltimore City Council is talking tough about standing up to the mayor. On the heels of attempts by some of his colleagues to shift money in the budget and force audits of city agencies, Councilman Bill Henry is proposing a series of structural changes that he says are needed to even out the balance of power. Even in a strong mayoral system, as Baltimore has, the powers that have accrued to that office and its current occupant,Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, border on the ridiculous, Councilman Henry says. He argues that enhanced budgetary powers, a lower threshold to override a veto, term limits and a reduction in the number of council members are needed to restore the principle of checks and balances.
Some of his ideas are good, and others are questionable. But what they share in common is this: Proposing them is likely only to prove, once again, the dominance of the mayor and the impotence of the council. Since taking office, Ms. Rawlings-Blake has stamped out every attempt to challenge her authority, no matter how oblique, and the council has repeatedly talked tough, only to crumple under pressure. Mr. Henry is right that council members are not being treated as a co-equal branch of government, but the primary fault lies not in the charter but in themselves.
The first of Mr. Henry's proposed amendments would change the balance of power in budgeting. Currently, the mayor proposes the budget, and the council can only cut spending from it. It cannot add appropriations or transfer money from one part of the budget to another. That is similar to the way budgets are handled on the state level and in most large local governments in Maryland. Mr. Henry is suggesting that the council be allowed to increase appropriations or to add new ones, provided the council makes up for it by cutting elsewhere.
Since the mayor, unlike the governor or most county executives, has the opportunity to veto a budget adopted by the council, it is a less bad idea than it would be elsewhere. But the principle of making the executive responsible for all government spending has generally provided for clear accountability and, in governments where the legislative branch takes its role as a watchdog seriously, fiscal responsibility.
There is a way under current law for the council to get money added to programs it wants, but it requires council members to stand up to the mayor, cut spending and negotiate for their priorities. Ms. Rawlings-Blake did it when she was council president, but when this council tried it, she easily quashed the rebellion.
Another amendment calls for term limits — two terms for the mayor and other citywide officials and three for council members. While we appreciate the value of bringing new blood into city government, a mechanism for that already exists; it's called an election. If voters feel they are well served by an incumbent, they should be allowed to be represented by him or her.
The third amendment would reduce the size of the council, from 15 members to nine. There is merit to this idea, in that an individual council member now has relatively little clout in negotiating with the mayor, and the small size of the current districts encourages some parochialism. But one element of the proposal invites confusion. Mr. Henry would establish six single-member districts and have three council members elected at large, one of whom voters would elect council president. That effectively sets up three tiers of power on the council, which could prove overly complicated.
Finally, Mr. Henry is proposing to reduce the threshold for overriding a mayor's veto from three-fourths of the council to two-thirds. That is also a perfectly reasonable idea and would mirror the setup for most other governments, local state and federal. Two-thirds is a sufficiently high barrier to give deference to the executive; three-fourths is a practical impossibility. Still, the issue is academic; the council has never managed to pass anything that Ms. Rawlings-Blake objected to sufficiently to veto.
Mr. Henry has put a good deal of thought into his proposals, but they have gotten a tepid response from the council and, curiously, have elicited little reaction from the mayor. Perhaps Ms. Rawlings-Blake is confident that the council will once again prove Mr. Henry's point about its own powerlessness and kill these amendments without her having to lift a finger. And that is the real problem behind the imbalance in city government. It doesn't matter what powers the council is given under the charter if it is too timid to use them.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times