An Even More Powerful Mayor?

January 11, 1994

The mayor of Baltimore City has awesome powers and more authority than in many other cities.

This was not always so but is the result of a gradual evolution. When the city first acquired self-government through a charter 197 years ago, the mayor clearly played the second fiddle to a bicameral City Council.

A panel that has been studying the city's charter since 1990 is now recommending that the mayor be granted even more powers.

Specifically, it proposes that the mayor be given the authority to hire and fire the school superintendent as well as the fire chief.

The charter revision commission, headed by retired Court of Appeals Judge Harry A. Cole, recommends that an appointed school board be retained. But it would strip the fire board of its executive powers and give it an advisory role.

"Much of the administration of the Fire Department requires technical knowledge about fire fighting equipment, deployment of firefighters, the components of an emergency medical program, the components of a fire prevention program, and other matters involving similar expertise. A well-qualified professional is more likely to possess this expertise than is a citizen board," the panel wrote.

All these recommendations make sense and would codify real-life practices that have often already taken place.

Could a school board actually name a school superintendent against the mayor's wishes? Could a fire board consistently force a policy against the wishes of a fire chief -- or the mayor? No way.

The charter revision commission considered an elected school board, but it rightly rejected the idea, fearing that "emotionally charged multi-district elections likely would fragment responsibility for education and produce incoherent and inconsistent educational policies."

By contrast, a school board appointed by the mayor is more likely to represent "a cross-section of the community, providing for a diversification of ideas, experiences and traditions in the development of educational policy." Amen.

The charter review commission will issue its final report in the next few weeks. The City Council will then get into the act. Not surprisingly, many of its members feel the mayor already has too much power and the council too little. But in these instances, the commission simply wants the charter to reflect the political reality of how government functions in Baltimore City in the 1990s.

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