Md. Senate panel realigns city elections

Mayor, council members object vigorously to prospect of two-year term

April 05, 2003|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

Over the objections of city lawmakers and Martin O'Malley, Baltimore's next mayor and City Council would serve just a two-year term after the next election under a plan approved by a Senate committee yesterday.

Acting under orders from Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee also approved pushing back the city's next primary election from this September to September 2004. The legislation goes to the Senate floor today.

Miller's intervention in the city's election process underscores a feud between the Senate president and Baltimore's mayor, and it touched off a political storm in Annapolis yesterday.

After the committee's unanimous vote, the chairman of the city's House delegation vowed to defeat any legislation that limits city officials to a two-year term. They normally serve for four years.

"I'm stunned," said Del. Salima S. Marriott, chairman of the city House delegation. "Under no circumstances will I reduce City Council to a two-year term."

With the 90-day legislative session set to end Monday night, state lawmakers are at a critical point in resolving an apparent stalemate over when to hold city elections. The Senate's action has set the stage for a heated debate between the two chambers.

If the legislature fails to pass a bill, the city is scheduled to hold its next primary election in September this year, while the next general election is set for November 2004. That would leave Baltimore with a lame-duck city government for 14 months.

"We'll just have to see what happens in conference committee," said Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, chairman of the city Senate delegation, which backed Miller's plan in a 4-to-2 vote yesterday before the full committee action.

Miller's primary aim is to move the mayoral elections to the same year as other statewide races. Baltimore is the only major Maryland jurisdiction that holds its local elections in years different from those for state elections - giving city politicians a free shot at other state offices without risking their positions.

This week, Miller said the only obstacle to the measure is "the political aspirations of the mayor."

`Very powerful man'

O'Malley charged that the Senate president is leading the legislature toward a "train wreck" over the date for the city's election.

"He's a very powerful man and a dynamic leader ... and if he pulls out all the stops on this, he'll add this train wreck to the list of train wrecks that will happen this legislative session," O'Malley said in an interview this week.

The election difficulty emerged after city voters passed a referendum in 1999 to hold municipal general elections in the same year as presidential races beginning in 2004.

But only the General Assembly has the authority to change the schedule for primary elections - and lawmakers have failed to do so in every session since 2000 because of wrangling between city and state officials.

This year marks the last chance to change the city election schedule, and the debate has grown increasingly tense as last-minute proposals work their way through the Assembly.

Marriott initially sponsored a bill to align the city's next primary with the presidential primary on Super Tuesday in March 2004. She said she believes that is what the voters decided in the 1999 referendum.

Although some city delegates wanted a September 2004 primary to eliminate a prolonged waiting period until the general election - and to keep candidates from having to campaign during the winter - the House overwhelmingly passed Marriott's legislation.

When her bill reached the Senate, Miller pressed city senators to amend the legislation to move the city elections to the same year as state races, beginning in 2006, and to shift the next city primary election to September 2004 instead of March.

Two who objected

Sen. George W. Della Jr. and Sen. Ralph M. Hughes were the only two city senators to oppose the president's amendments.

"It's one thing to change the primary date of the city election, but now it has grown to shorten the term of the city officials," Della said in objecting to the amendments.

Miller has long wanted Baltimore's elections in line with state races. Besides seeking to eliminate the free shot at state offices for city officials, Miller said, he believes that having the city elections the same year as state elections will increase voter turnout and reduce election costs.

To bring Baltimore in line with the state, the terms for the mayor and City Council members elected in 2004 would have to be either shorter or longer than the normal four years.

Miller wants the shorter term, which could harm O'Malley's political prospects. Under Miller's plan, the mayor would have to choose between running for mayor or a state post such as governor in 2006 - and risk being voted out of political office.

O'Malley said the two-year term is unworkable. He said recruiting and retaining staff would be difficult for incumbent elected officials and even harder for challengers who take the jobs for the first time.

"Two-year terms are rough on governing," O'Malley said. "To have a two-year term, like members of Congress have, is really a lot to demand of an executive. With only two years, it becomes a bit harder to recruit good people to positions.

"If President Miller wants to be strong-willed and thwart the will of the people about this, we'll have the primary [this] September," he said.

Yesterday, Marriott said she would consider a compromise with the Senate that would align the city's elections with the state's in 2010, which would give the next mayor and council a six-year term.

Sun staff writer Tom Pelton contributed to this article.

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