Election bills rile Baltimore council

Members say legislation infringes on city's rights

February 23, 1999|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

Angered by General Assembly proposals to change Baltimore elections and to weaken the mayor's power, City Council members took steps last night to block two of the measures they criticized as impinging upon "local democracy."

The council approved unanimously a resolution urging legislators to reject two Senate bills that mandate that municipal elections be held the same year as state elections.

Council members also plan to attend Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee hearings at 1 p.m. Thursday to oppose the proposals.

"This body right here is going to decide about its election cycle," said Councilman Robert Curran, who sponsored the resolution.

The rules governing Baltimore elections and mayoral powers are stated in the City Charter, which can be amended on a local level only by citywide referendum. But state lawmakers can pass legislation that overrides local authority.

Council members criticized last night state proposals as politics by lawmakers who are upset with the city and some of its leaders.

"Any attempt to destroy local democracy is an affront to the people of Baltimore City," said Council President Lawrence A. Bell III in an impassioned speech.

Bell has the most to lose under some of the bills because he wants to be mayor. He said last night that he was trying to be diplomatic by keeping silent but was moved to speak out by what he said were political games being played by state lawmakers.

"These delegates and senators, who are flexing their muscles and basically decapitating the city, ought to think about the legacy they're leaving for the next generation," Bell said. "We're going to Annapolis and we're going to remind our delegates and senators what democracy is."

Because no mayoral incumbent is running for the first time in more than a decade, the wide-open mayoral election this year is sure to be heated.

Some state lawmakers, led by Del. Howard P. Rawlings, the influential chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, have criticized Bell and the current field of about a dozen other candidates as weak and "frightening to people."

Rawlings has joined with Del. Salima Siler Marriott, chairwoman of the city's House delegation, and Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg in drafting a bill that would reduce the city's residency requirement for mayoral candidates from a year to six months.

In addition, Del. Tony E. Fulton wants to create a city manager post for Baltimore, which would weaken the mayor's power.

On Thursday, the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee will hear testimony on two bills that call for municipal elections to coincide with state polling. Such a move would prevent elected officials that hold hold either city or state posts from running in more than one election.

Eliminating off-year city elections would save taxpayers about $4 million.

As an alternative to the state bills, Curran proposed that the council pass legislation to make the city elections coincide with the presidential vote. Curran proposed similar legislation last fall, but the council rejected the idea.

In doing so, council members gave such reasons as the presidential primary is in March and winter weather could hamper candidates' fund raising.

But last night, even the previous opponents voiced support for an amended version of the bill that Curran introduced last night. That bill would move the city's general election to coincide with the presidential election in November. But the primary election would remain in September.

"I believe this shows our good faith," said 1st District Councilman John Cain, after criticizing state lawmakers' proposals. "I think it goes a long way to defeating [the Senate] bills."

Pub Date: 2/23/99

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