Move afoot in Annapolis for City Hall overhaul

October 26, 2008|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,chris.guy@baltsun.com

Here in the state capital, where politics is a spectator sport, a group of neighborhood activists and city aldermen - not to mention loads of residents who've turned out for community forums - is pushing for an overhaul at City Hall.

Two city council members say they've been working hard to merge a pair of charter changes that would rein in day-to-day power that has become concentrated in the mayor's office. Another lawmaker thinks maybe appointing a blue-ribbon panel would help sort out whether a city manager or a strengthened city administrator would be more effective.

Meanwhile, community leaders have organized public gab sessions that have drawn standing-room crowds. And a former mayor says the city's charter just needs some tweaking to redefine roles of city officials.

Current two-term Mayor Ellen O. Moyer, who's sponsoring a series of lunchtime "Let's Talk" sessions on Fridays, says the whole thing is a witch hunt by some who haven't cared much for her direct management style.

"What we have is a salesmen team, talking this up when what we really need is meaningful conversation," Moyer said. "I think it's a referendum on me. Why else are they so hellbent on making a change."

Alderman Ross Arnett, a Democrat who represents Eastport, says his idea is based largely on a city manager model from the National League of Cities.

"The real power in the current system rests with the mayor," Arnett said. "There's no check or balance. Everything is concentrated in the mayor's office," said Arnett, who hopes to bring a charter amendment to the council by early January.

Alderman Richard Israel, a Democrat who represents downtown Annapolis, wants to strengthen the city administrator, who could be hired and fired with votes by four council members and the mayor.

"Under any option, the mayor is going to continue to hold a lot of sway," said Doug Smith, who heads the Ward 1 neighborhood association. "This isn't a witch hunt; we just want the best kind of government. Sometimes, a person can have political skills, but that might not translate to being a good administrator."

Smith, who has lived in Annapolis for three years, has organized two community forums in the past month, one that drew 60 people. He says research shows that 63 percent of cities Annapolis' size (25,000 to 50,000) have a council and mayor system, including Bowie, Greenbelt, Rockville and College Park in Maryland.

Because the charter can be changed by a simple majority vote by the council, Smith says changes could come quickly.

"It seems that we could get this to a vote in November or December," Smith said. "The timing seems right, and we should get it resolved in 30 to 60 days."

Moyer, who is entering the final year of her second term, says the proposals siphon accountability from elected officials.

"I don't understand taking authority away from elected people," Moyer said. "And I don't see how you have a public dialogue in 30 to 60 days. It's not ample time to engage people. This smacks you in the face, as if we're a little city that doesn't know what it's doing. We have a very professional staff."

Former Mayor Richard Hillman, who served from 1981 to 1985, said that aldermen and mayors have misinterpreted their roles.

"Part of it is that council members are out acting like little mayors," Hillman said. "Instead of the mayor hiring and firing department heads, the administrative officer should handle that. The mayor ought to be meeting with the county executive, the legislature or be out kissing babies and representing the city."

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