City Council ends productive year

Smoking ban, gun offender registry, limitation on evictions among accomplishments

December 04, 2007|By John Fritze | John Fritze,Sun reporter

From crafting a citywide smoking ban to approving one of the nation's first gun offender registries, Baltimore's typically sleepy City Council wrapped up a relatively productive year last night, despite an election that kept many members on the campaign trail all summer.

The 15-member, all-Democratic council zipped through the final agenda of its 69th term last night, approving a handful of uncontroversial bills while letting dozens of others die. Pending legislation in the council does not automatically carry over into the new term, which is set to begin Thursday.

"This was a very aggressive year," said City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, who took over as president in January when then-president Sheila Dixon became mayor.

Baltimore's smoking ban, introduced in 2005, was the most controversial legislation the council had dealt with in years. Sponsored by Robert W. Curran - who became council vice president this year - the legislation teetered on the edge of defeat for weeks but was ultimately approved in February.

After the city's ban was signed into law by Dixon, the Maryland General Assembly approved a separate statewide smoking ban for restaurants and bars that will take effect Feb. 1.

More recently, the council approved legislation prohibiting landlords from tossing tenants' personal belongings onto the sidewalk after an eviction - a long-standing practice that forced the city to haul those items away at taxpayer expense. The council had failed to pass similar legislation for years.

Dixon has signed 185 measures introduced this year into law. Some were relatively minor proposals, such as the repealing the prohibition against reselling game tickets within a mile of the Camden Yards sports complex. Others, such as the creation of the gun offender registry, were more significant.

The registry, introduced in the council at Dixon's behest, was modeled after a similar program in New York and requires Baltimore gun offenders to register their name, aliases, address and other information within 48 hours of a gun conviction or release from jail.

Police have said that about half of the suspects arrested on homicide charges have gun convictions and that the registry will help police zero in on prior offenders for questioning if criminal activity increases in a particular neighborhood.

City Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young, chair of the budget committee, pointed to council approval of a spending plan that carried a slight property tax decrease while preserving some children's programs despite federal cuts.

Several council members also mentioned a new law, introduced by Councilwoman Helen L. Holton, that will allow city police to "close" residences or businesses that "significantly affect ... neighboring residents by being disorderly" - essentially allowing the city to evict residents for up to one year for being overly rowdy.

That legislation was approved in October and signed into law last month.

But dozens of proposals, including legislation that would have protected residents from losing their homes for unpaid water bills and a measure to impose more stringent spending requirements on the city's development agency, died with little debate.

After a series of articles in The Sun documented how residents had lost their homes for failing to pay city water bills, several proposals were introduced to stop the practice, but none of them were approved.

One, introduced by City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, would have prohibited the city from foreclosing on an occupied home for any overdue bill other than property taxes. The law and public works departments drafted memos of opposition and a hearing was never scheduled.

"We have to keep trying until we get it done. There's no reason for water fines to be a cause for a person losing their home," Clarke said. "I believe that we will eventually prevail on this one."

A bill banning stores from dispensing plastic bags was withdrawn by its sponsor, Councilman James B. Kraft. He vowed to reintroduce the bill next month.

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