Charter Hearing Draws No Crowd

May 22, 1993

When O. James Lighthizer was the Anne Arundel County executive, he used to say that the best way to make sure something was done in secret was to do it routinely in a public meeting. That way, he maintained, chances were good no reporters or members of the public would be around.

The theory seems to hold water. When Baltimore City's charter revision commission held its first advertised hearing Thursday, not a single member of the public showed up. After waiting for an hour for possible late-comers, the 13 members of the commission called it a day. "I told my husband I would be home to cook his dinner," panel member Janet Hoffman quipped as she departed.

The city's charter is its constitution. As this city changes, that constitution needs changes. The last major overhaul of Baltimore City's charter occurred in 1964, although the document has been reviewed several times since.

When the current commission, headed by retired Courts of Appeals Judge Harry Cole, was appointed four years ago, it wanted to examine the charter with the view of "cutting out the waste and streamlining government." The panel's subcommittees have spent hundreds of hours going through the charter in detail. They have revised language, invited testimony and mulled over ways to reorganize the municipal government.

The charter deals mostly with the functions of the mayor, City Council, comptroller, Board of Estimates and various municipal boards and commissions. In contrast, many crucial bureaucracies -- like the Department of Housing and Community Development -- are not even mentioned in the charter. Should they be? That's one of the questions over which the commission is now pondering.

According to its current timetable, the commission will publish its draft report late next month. At least one public hearing will then be held before a final report is sent to the mayor and the City Council. They will have ample time to propose charter revisions for voters to consider in the November 1994 election.

Michael Millemann, a University of Maryland law professor who is the commission's reporter, thinks the panel's recommendations next month will trigger public interest. "People always find it easier to react to written proposals," he said. Baltimoreans ought to respond. This is their chance to have a say in how their city government is set up.

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