A New Government (Part 1)

Here’s something not too many people seem to know about: the big affordable housing bill passed in a rush this past December was drafted wrong. Rather than collect millions in revenue through a new property tax — so that our Affordable Housing Trust Fund could finally have some funds — it created a new tax that won’t collect much at all.

(So far, only the Daily Record and Baltimore Fishbowl have picked this up.)

There’s an easy fix to this, and on February 4th, Council Bill 19-0330 was introduced for just that purpose. But we still have a bigger problem.

The City Council isn’t designed to find bold, lasting solutions to hard problems, and does not have the resources to take on the challenges its newer members want to tackle. It is a legislative body made up of low paid, part-time legislators under the control of an independently elected Council President and a strong mayor.

A fundamental reinvention of our government is necessary, starting with the City Council.

That’s the problem. That’s how the affordable housing bill drafting could end in a mistake. It was the new Council members, together with a broad group of advocates, who pushed this legislation to passage, dragging along the mayor and the Council President, kicking and screaming — the people with the real power and resources who were never invested in the bill’s success.

Since 2015 the city has awakened to its challenges as if from a long slumber. New members of the City Council have brought a new energy. Yet we are still a long way away from rising to these challenges.

A fundamental reinvention of our government is necessary, starting with the City Council.

What city government does — two buckets.

We need the City Council focused on making city government better. Unfortunately, it can’t really do this. To understand why, we need to understand what our government actually does. This requires setting aside all the different agencies and bureaucracies and focusing on essential functions.

Everything that city government does falls in two buckets.

First bucket: what it controls.

The first bucket includes all the direct services city government provides through the infrastructure and institutions it controls. When the city surveys residents about what matters most, the responses focus here — schools, police, trash, transportation — because most people experience city government through having kids in school, calling 911, needing an alley cleaned, or sitting in traffic or waiting for the bus on the way to work.

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The first bucket constitutes a set of concrete deliverables — educating children, keeping neighborhoods safe, maintaining existing infrastructure, and building new infrastructure. In other words, Education, Public Safety, Maintenance, and Capital.

“Maintenance” includes keeping the city clean. But it also includes all the other reasons people call 311 — boarding up abandoned buildings, mowing grass, filling potholes, fixing water meters or water leaks, replacing park benches.

Every year, the top ten 311 service requests are basically the same, and they almost all focus on maintenance. A chart of the top 10 service requests from 2008 or 2013 would look the same as this chart from 2010 — although neither would list “Snow/Icy Conditions,” which was unique to 2010’s “Snowmageddon.”

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“Capital” covers planning and building the city’s infrastructure. A core part of that involves meeting the city’s transportation needs. It’s not filling potholes. It’s building new roadway arteries based on long-range traffic planning, developing multimodal transit, and planning for major investments in rail or bus rapid transit.

A city’s vision for its future lives in its capital plan, which includes not just transportation but things like:

  • planning the infrastructure needed for large redevelopment proposals (like State Center or Port Covington or Park Heights);

  • expanding our park system;

  • developing long-term solutions for the city’s trash disposal system, which currently relies on two major pieces of infrastructure — an outmoded incinerator (which the city does not own) and a landfill that will soon be full (which the city does);

  • building out a network of new recreation centers that supports rather than wastefully duplicates the school system’s new school construction program.

All of the above is the first bucket — the stuff government directly controls.

Second bucket: what it can influence.

The second bucket contains all the stuff government does not control, but tries to influence. 

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The activity here is usually focused on the private sector. Government can have a great impact through regulations and incentives, but there’s no machine in City Hall with dials and levers to change the number of jobs available, the quality or cost of housing, the amount of new development, the health of residents or the quality of the environment.

The interventions here are all indirect — setting wage limits and running job training programs, inspecting and regulating homes and home construction, incentivizing new development in under-invested neighborhoods, running health clinics or funding substance abuse programs, or inspecting restaurants.

Two buckets, two problems.

When our new City Council members took office in 2016, they all confronted a problem: they don’t have much control over anything in the first bucket. That includes all the reasons people call 311, and how the city ultimately answers those calls is under the control of the mayor and the City Council President.

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This is by design. Ours is a strong mayor system, and the mayor has most of the control. The mayor controls the city budget, and the Council has very little say on how money gets spent. The mayor has executive authority over all the city agencies. The mayor also controls the board that approves the budget, as well as all city spending — the Board of Estimates, where the mayor has 3 of the 5 votes. It’s made up of the Mayor, the City Council President, the Comptroller, and two more members under the mayor’s control, the head of Public Works and the City Solicitor.

The only counterbalance to the mayor’s power is that of the Council President. The Council President chairs the Board of Estimates, and controls the City Council and its agenda through control of committee assignments, the legislative calendar, and access to the few resources the City Council has.

When they have a cooperative relationship, the mayor and Council President can exert great control over City Hall, and can silence dissent. Little has been said, for example, about their recent and expensive travel to far-off Washington, D.C. The Board of Estimates approved thousands in expenses for the Council President to travel there, then approved thousands in expenses for the Mayor to travel there. There is no countervailing power to prevent this waste of money. Public dissent from Council members would have been political suicide, which is why we heard none.

We often see Council members picking up trash in alleys with constituents because it’s hard for them to have direct impact in any other way.

It’s not just because of their hard work and commitment that we see Council members picking up trash in alleys for their constituents and following up on individual 311 calls. It’s because it is hard for them to have a direct impact in any other way.

And this leads to a second problem. Without any authority over the budget, and with limited ability to affect city services, the new Council members have gotten very involved in the second bucket of issues — but without the resources needed to make good policy on jobs, housing, development or the environment.

In a struggle for relevance, in response to residents demands for progress, and bucking against an administration with no clear agenda, sweeping changes have been sponsored in the Council chamber — and in some cases made law — often with very little consideration.

First problem: a City Council with no responsibility.

Four years after the uprising, we are all still waiting for bold action on schools, police, trash, or transportation — and better results on all fronts.

And for the past two years, thanks to the structure of our government, the City Council has been trapped beneath an administration struggling to make progress and a Council President accustomed to flexing his power over them.

Meanwhile, the most important thing the mayor and Council President could have been doing these past two years is reasserting control and accountability over the two most important issues in the city — schools and police. But that hasn’t happened either.

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  • Schools: In 2017, the mayor won back control over who sits on the school board, but this was a cosmetic reform. State law changes made back in 1997 removed the mayor from any day-to-day control over the school system, and that’s still the case. In fact, the city’s Inspector General was just told by the school system they are “separate from city government” and not subject to IG oversight, even with city dollars at stake. Council members and residents alike remain trapped between two mayors — one who works at North Avenue and one who works in City Hall.

  • Police: The City Council has held hearings on BPD’s budget and operations but hasn’t had real influence on public safety, forced to watch and wait with the rest of us while this administration figures out how to hire a police commissioner. Like schools, City Hall does not have direct control over BPD either, and has been slow to take responsibility, even though implementing the Consent Decree signed by the city requires BPD to be controlled by the city. Instead, so far, reform has been outsourced to a well-paid outside monitor.

  • Trash: The biggest city-wide maintenance issue is the mayor’s intent to knock down all 4000 abandoned buildings the city owns, using the governor’s “Project Core” program. This removes blight, but it also demolishes history, and with no plan to rebuild, it exchanges one kind of vacancy for another. This effort deserves close scrutiny from the City Council — if only it had the power.

  • Transportation: One of the Council’s major wins in the first bucket was its Complete Streets legislation, designed to make roads more bike and pedestrian friendly. Unfortunately, DOT has cut funding for new bike infrastructure to zero, and has generally been . . . troubled.

Second problem: the Council trying to overcome the first problem.

Because the Council has so little impact on the first-bucket issues, most of its work has focused on private sector regulation. The subjects have included some of the biggest issues facing us as a city, which only makes sense given how many people are hungry for living wages and quality housing.

But there’s a danger here as well. If you have the votes, it’s pretty easy to enact sweeping policy changes. After all, increasing property taxes or implementing a new minimum wage only requires words on a page. The first-bucket stuff — fixing things, building things, training police, managing schools — is way, way harder, even though it’s under the government’s direct control.

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And the second-bucket issues are usually ripe for grassroots mobilization. When advocates mobilize on behalf of legislation and can find enough Council members in support, even the power of the mayor and Council President runs up against its limits.

Policy has to be made carefully, however bold it seeks to be. Otherwise we just convince the cynics that a social justice agenda cannot be pursed in a smart and thorough manner, and is doomed to fail or bankrupt us — which is probably what the cynics think today.

  • Jobs: The minimum wage bill (that the mayor vetoed) was passed by the Council after a rushed and ramshackle process. A single hearing was allowed on this sweeping issue — one night of people arguing with each other instead a reasoned debate pro and con.

  • Housing: The mistakes made with the affordable housing bill are another example of a broken policy process, but there’s an even better one — the absence of an actual strategy to invest in affordable housing. There was no policy analysis or work group dedicated to that question in the two years before the bill was passed. Instead, the legislation simply gives the current administration millions in tax revenue in the hopes that it figures something out with the help of a “commission.”

  • Economic Development: This is one place where the Council has not been active, primarily because no one has asked recently for a TIF or a PILOT or other tax advantage. The real action has happened outside of the Council’s power. The mayor’s $52 million Neighborhood Investment Fund was created through Board of Estimates action. The Council will not have a role in its expenditure — which is too bad since it amounts to an election-year slush fund.

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The big issue concerning health and the environment is the legislation just passed by the Council to impose new emissions limits on trash incineration. Over 700,000 tons of trash are burned annually at a private facility in South Baltimore, most of it from the city. Burning the trash produces enough energy to power 40,000 homes, but also pollutes our air — which is either a matter that requires urgent, immediate action, or not, depending on how the legislation is justified.

The bill was rushed to passage by unanimous voice-vote after a single hearing, even though there’s no plan to deal with our many tons of trash if the incinerator closes because of it. In response, proponents point out that the bill won’t take effect for 5 years. But that just means the incinerator will keep polluting our air for all that time. Probably the only immediate consequence of this bill will be a lawsuit seeking to overturn it.

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The real challenge is how much trash we produce as a city, and how the city picks it up — which are much harder first-bucket issues. Once again, second-bucket issues like regulating private-sector emissions can be handled with just words on a page. Making sure every resident has a recycling bin, and scheduling its pick-up, is a lot harder.

“Every single day I hear from my constituents who are right on the margins, saying, ‘If [water] rates go up by 30%, I don’t think I can afford to live in Baltimore any more.’”

“Every single day I hear from my constituents who are right on the margins, saying, ‘If [water] rates go up by 30%, I don’t think I can afford to live in Baltimore any more.’”

Had more time and attention been paid to the real problem (our trash) perhaps the solution advocated by the bill’s proponents would have gotten more attention — charging households for trash pickup. Not long ago the city studied that idea, and determined it would cost households about another water bill each month. Soon enough we’ll see if that too gets unanimous Council support.

All of these ideas — clean air, living wages, affordable housing — were strong enough to withstand scrutiny and analysis. We didn’t need to rush it, and in each case a more thorough policy process could have yielded a viable result. Instead, we don’t have higher wages, the city isn’t building affordable housing, and we have to wait five years for clean air while our recycling rate stagnates below the national average.

A New Government

Governing our city is hard, and we should be careful not to hold elected officials to an impossible standard. The problems we have are not their fault.

But none of that really matters to families deciding whether to stay in the city or leave. Or to children sitting in cold classrooms. Or to long-time residents going to bed to the sound of gunshots. Or to businesses unsure whether to invest here or somewhere else.

To them, results matter. Fair or not, they expect them to come from City Hall.

We have to start somewhere. So let’s take apart City Hall.

The only way we are going to get better results is to take apart our entire government and put it back together differently. This won’t be easy, particularly when it comes to our school system and our police department.

We have to start somewhere. So let’s take apart City Hall. If we do it right, we can, (1) increase the responsibility of the City Council while retaining a strong mayor system just like New York City did not long ago, (2) create a system that is more responsive to resident concerns, and that encourages long-term thinking and smart policy-making, and (3) get rid of ancient vestiges of the City Charter that do nothing to deliver a high-performance government.

1. Abolish the Board of Estimates.

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The BOE was created in 1898. At the time cities across the country were growing by leaps and bounds and were overwhelmed by the task of building the modern metropolis — including all the infrastructure we take for granted today like paved roads and water and sewer service. These demands, and government’s inadequacy in meeting them, lead to a variety of Progressive Era innovations familiar to today’s policy wonks — governance by a board of commissioners, or by a city council/city manager arrangement.

Baltimore City asserted control over its sprawling city bureaucracy and its spending with the Board of Estimates. Before this, the City Council’s practice had been to authorize spending on a piecemeal basis and use temporary loans to cover the expense. A revised City Charter put a stop to this, and required the BOE to review and approve any spending called for in a council bill — before it was passed. Long before a modern budget process, city agencies were newly required to individually submit their budgets to the BOE for approval, on an annual basis. And long before modern procurement practices, a separate Board of Awards was set up to oversee the advertisement and award of city contracts.

The BOE: a place for political grandstanding, backroom dealing, and corruption.

Today, the Board of Estimates and Board of Awards are vestiges of ancient history with no legitimate purpose in a modern government. Their functions were replaced long ago budgeting and professional oversight from the Departments of Finance and Law, and competitive contracting rules. The BOE now exists as an elaborate performance to approve, for a second time, spending and contracting already approved through better processes.

These performances happen on Wednesday mornings, a weekly opportunity for political grandstanding, backroom dealing, and corruption.

Former Mayor Sheila Dixon recently explained how, when she was Council President, she would use that position to control the BOE agenda as leverage over Mayor O’Malley. To get things she wanted on unrelated projects, she could hold up items needing BOE approval. Here’s how she described it in this interview (at 49 minutes and 30 seconds):

“That’s how I used to get at Martin.”

“That’s how I used to get at Martin.”

“That’s how I used to get at Martin . . . If there was an item on there where I needed more information, I was trying to get something done for the city, on behalf of me, I used the Board of Estimates. I took it off the agenda until I got some answers or some results . . . There are ways to manipulate the process even though [the mayor] has three votes, because the agenda, the draft agenda, comes to the City Council President.”

There is a better way. New York City successfully abolished its Board of Estimates in 1989 to establish a new balance of power between a strong mayor and city council and end backroom dealing at an unaccountable board. We should do the same.

2. Abolish the Office of Comptroller.

Once upon a time the Comptroller was responsible for most of the internal workings of city government, including financial controls and human resources.

Decades ago all Comptroller’s powers were removed when the Finance Department was created.

But decades ago the Comptroller was reduced to a largely ceremonial role. When the City Charter was revised in 1964, the vast majority of the Comptroller’s functions were moved into a newly created Department of Finance. Ever since, that department, not the Comptroller, has been responsible for preparing the operating budget, reporting on the capital budget, ensuring budget compliance, controlling all payments and disbursements, as well as payroll and pension payments, tax collections, property assessments, tax sales, and city purchasing.

The city never conducts thorough financial audits, and also has a terrible telephone system — because those are the only two things the Comptroller still controls. There are better, more accountable ways to do both.

3. Abolish the Office of City Council President.

The leadership of a legislative body should be chosen by its members. When wave election happens the body should have the opportunity to reevaluate its leadership, as the U.S. House of Representatives did after the wave of 2018 (choosing to stick with Nancy Pelosi).

But our City Council had no such chance after 2016’s electoral turnover, because our structure does not allow it.

The Council leader should reflect the Council membership, because that reflects the city. It doesn’t now.

City government’s second most powerful official is a popularly elected City Council President, who controls the entire Council through committee assignments, the legislative calendar, and the Office of Council Services. Within City Hall, the role of Council President is essential unaccountable and can easily silence dissent. A council member who voices opposition to the Council President risks losing committee assignments or the chance to introduce legislation — which is why it never happens.

A Council President chosen by the body itself would better reflect the Council’s membership, and thus, the people the Council represents — us.  A leader chosen that way could not rule by fiat, but would have to establish and maintain credibility with his or her colleagues through the fair and responsive operation of the chamber.

A more responsive Council will be essential once the BOE is abolished, because the budget process will be entirely different. There will be no zombie board to approve a budget drafted almost exclusively by the mayor. Instead, the Council will be a partner in negotiating the budget with the mayor — which will enable more direct Council involvement in the first-bucket issues.

4. Establish a full-time City Council with At-Large members.

Once the BOE, Comptroller, and Council President roles are abolished, the City Council’s role will grow in importance. And when schools and police are finally returned to City Hall accountability, no one will get to pass the buck anymore. All of our elected officials will be on the hook for all the important issues.

The job of City Council member should be as serious as the issues they want to take on.

So, when real reform happens, a part-time council representing 14 tiny districts will no longer cut it. Being a council member should be a full-time job with a salary reflecting the seriousness of the issues members now want to take on. Districts should also be large enough to (1) assure that members represent a fair cross-section of the city, and (2) assure that winning an election requires more than just a few thousand votes in a primary election.

And, like some other cities (such as D.C. and Philadelphia), we need three or four At-Large members elected city-wide. Those holding these offices will be positioned to focus on issues of city-wide importance, and will help us create a bigger bench for future leadership.

5. Combine Office of Council Services and Department of Legislative Reference.

The Maryland General Assembly has a non-partisan Department of Legislative Services, and our city government should have a version of the same. DLS provides policy and fiscal analysis of legislation, supports legislative committees, assists with drafting and editing bills, and runs ongoing workgroups focused on important recurring issues.

The Council needs an office for non-partisan policy analysis, inquiry, and long-term thinking.

Our City Council does not have this kind of robust support because to the extent these functions exist at all, they are poorly funded and are split across two entities — both subject to partisan control.

The Office of Council Services provides some legislative support, but it is under the control of the Council President, and thus, his or her agenda.

The other entity, the Department of Legislative Reference, used to be independent, with a chief appointed by a non-partisan board. But our current mayor and Council President schemed to put this department under their thumb. This is a bad decision for an office providing critical functions — preparing ordinances to be voted upon by the Council, administering the ethics law, supervising revisions of the Baltimore City Code, and maintaining the city archives.

The Council needs an office for non-partisan analysis, inquiry, and long-term thinking, particularly when legislation of city-wide and regional importance is at stake. A Department of Council Services would be that place, one to search for the right answer not the expedient one, able to sponsor, at the Council’s request, policy work groups, and not subject to the whims of any single elected official.

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All of these changes are possible with a movement of people across the city who want something better, and who know we need more than just short-term solutions and quick fixes. The 2015 uprising was a demand for something this comprehensive. That demand remains unmet.

Dan Sparaco