Reshaping Annapolis could fall to voters

Calls arise for a referendum on proposed changes to operation of city government

December 11, 2008|By Nicole Fuller | Nicole Fuller,

Voters in Annapolis might have a chance to determine whether the city government should increase the powers of its city administrator or employ a city manager to oversee its inner workings.

Political activists and some city council members are saying that voters should have the final say about what could amount to a major change to the city's governance structure.

At Monday night's city council meeting, Tony Evans, a political activist and the treasurer of the city's Democratic Central Committee, said he is considering petitioning for a referendum on the issue.

"Anytime I bring it up with anybody, the overwhelming majority say, 'Yes, I think it should be a referendum,' " said Evans, who said he has not yet decided which governing system he supports.

"I want to see the debate. I'm trying to keep an open mind. I have to admit, I start out with a prejudice: Do we have to have a drastic change?"

For almost a year now, the Annapolis Board of Aldermen has debated the merits and drawbacks of amending the city charter to increase the power of the city administrator. Mayor Ellen O. Moyer has said the potential change is an unfair indictment of her administration that would wrongly strip future mayors of power. (Moyer, who is in the last year of her second four-year term, will be out of office by the time any of these potential changes become law.)

Four proposed changes - a city administrator form of government, a sort of hybrid city council and city manager partnership, and two versions that include a new city manager position - have been introduced to the council as charter amendments; they remain in committee.

And now, while the debate continues in government meetings and in bustling community forums, a movement to let the voters decide is gaining momentum.

In Annapolis, the mayor wields most of the power, with the authority to hire, fire and set salaries for department heads. Some critics have argued that having a city administrator or city manager run daily operations would result in a more professional and streamlined government.

According to Seth B. Zirkle, the city's legislative and policy analyst, in order to get a referendum on the ballot, organizers must get at least 20 percent of the city's registered voters to sign a petition requesting the referendum.

"This right of getting a referendum is painted in very broad strokes," said Zirkle. "It's burdensome. But I can see the merits from both sides. It would be very, very difficult to have a special election before the municipal election [in November]. ... It's a difficult process."

The council must verify that the petition signatures belong to registered voters, and once satisfied that the 20 percent mark has been met, it must within 60 days set a date for a vote on the referendum by passing a resolution, according to the Annotated Code of Maryland. The resolution must also state the exact language of the referendum. At the discretion of the city council, the referendum must go to a vote at the next municipal election - which in this case would be next fall - or during a special election.

At least two members of the council say they support a referendum: Richard Israel, a Democrat representing Ward 1, and David Cordle, a Republican from Ward 2. Israel is chairman of the Rules Committee, which is poring over the four proposed amendments. Both men are considering running for mayor.

"I would sign his petition," Israel said. "I have become convinced that we need a very different model for running this city. The city administrator now has the responsibility to supervise directors but can't hire or fire, or set compensation. That's why a lot of people can ignore him, and he can visit all the sister cities he wants."

Moyer rejected the notion that Bob Agee, who is both the city administrator and acting director of the Public Works Department, lacks authority. She said she supports, whether it's an amendment to the city's charter or a referendum, "whatever maintains representative government to it fullest. That is what's really under assault."

The issue is also complicated by politics, observers say.

With Moyer's term ending in 2009, council members who are considering running for mayor are probably wondering how the proposed changes to city government would change the job.

"I'm sure there's some people thinking in terms of what could be more advantageous to them, as far as the politics of it," said Israel. "What I hear from my constituents, they want a change made. I think those who seek to be the mayor would be well-advised there is a lot of sentiment for some change. That's what we find out in a referendum: if people really want change."

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