Flawed jobs' bill's silver lining

Our view: The City Council's tussle over the legality of its legislation prompts an overdue push for it to get its own legal advisor

June 05, 2013

The City Council's decision this week to unanimously approve a bill requiring businesses getting large city contracts to hire 51 percent of new workers from Baltimore was regrettable not only because the measure probably won't have much impact on the worthy goal of reducing city unemployment, but because it may be illegal as well. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's decision to let it go into law without her signature, despite the advice of City Solicitor George Nilson that it is almost certainly unconstitutional, is shameful.

That said, the whole episode exposed another flaw in the lopsided balance of power in Baltimore's mayor-heavy government. The only legal advice the council gets on its legislation comes from the city solicitor, who serves at the pleasure of the mayor, and it has become quite evident that council members do not trust that his opinions are unbiased and instead believe that he says whatever the mayor wants. Whether that's true in this or any case, it's a problem.

That is why Mr. Young's introduction Monday of legislation seeking a charter amendment allowing the City Council to hire its own independent legal counsel may turn out to be the one silver lining of this unfortunate episode. Mr. Young said the move was necessary so the council won't have to rely solely on the city solicitor's interpretation of the law.

There's no doubt the City Council, as a co-equal branch of government with the mayor's office, could benefit from access to expert legal advice it trusts. In fact, it's shocking that it doesn't already have its own lawyer; the General Assembly and most county councils in the state do.

There is no way of knowing for certain that a lawyer hired by the council would have given the same advice about the local hiring bill that Mr. Nilson did. And if he or she had, the council might well have passed the bill anyway. But certainly such a decision would have been more politically fraught and might also have prevented its supporters from assembling a veto-proof majority on the council.

At the very least, if the council had access to its own attorney, it might have crafted the law in a way more likely to survive a legal challenge — it differs markedly, for example, from the San Francisco ordinance on which Mr. Young says the Baltimore bill was based — or it might have been able to engage in more productive negotiations with the mayor's office on a safer approach to meeting the goal of reducing Baltimore's unemployment rate.

The City Council shouldn't stop at getting its own lawyer. Mr. Young has managed in recent years to hire a part-time budget analyst to help the council analyze the mayor's spending proposal, but he should seek to make that position full-time and permanent. Other local governments in Maryland have long provided their legislative bodies with the resources to do their own budget analyses, which are crucial to making them an effective check on the executive's spending authority. As it is, the council must rely on the advice of the mayor's administration to determine what to cut from the mayor's budget, the result being that, in most years, it cuts nothing at all. That's not healthy. An independent budget analyst position would quickly pay for itself by identifying opportunities for reductions in spending on unnecessary and ineffective programs that drain scarce resources without significantly improving the quality of life for city residents.

In the meantime, the spectacle of the council rushing to pass a law despite serious doubts as to whether it can pass constitutional muster is hardly reassuring in a body charged with conducting the public's business. Nor does the episode inspire confidence in Ms. Rawlings-Blake, who was right to question the measure's wisdom initially but who now seems more concerned with the political damage she would suffer by watching the council override her veto. If she truly believes the law puts the city at risk, she should stand up for her principles and let the chips fall where they may. She still has time to make her objections known and reject the legislation. That may not be the most politically popular course of action, but it's the right thing to do.

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