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Can you imagine Martin O’Malley or Sheila Dixon not wanting responsibility for “day-to-day operations of the City?”

I can’t either.

Say what you will about either one of them, but when they were mayor, we knew who was in charge.

Yet days ago, a City Council bill was introduced that would:

  • delete the language that says the mayor “shall have general supervision over all municipal officers and agencies,”

  • take away the mayor’s power “to remove at pleasure all municipal officers,” and

  • give executive power to a City Administrator who would control the budget, get paid more money than the mayor, and who the mayor couldn’t remove without a majority vote from the City Council.

A less accountable mayor is not the answer.

This proposal has me thinking that maybe we’ve given up on having a good mayor ever again.

With a mayor on the verge of resignation it’s hard not to feel that way.

But adding another box to the org chart does not create a better government, or answer the question of leadership.

The org chart for city government already has too many boxes.

We have a Board of Estimates that approved the Healthy Holly contracts.

We have a Comptroller who is supposed to be responsible for fiscal audits who forced out the city auditor.

We have a part-time City Council.

And we have an Office of the Council President designed mostly for someone to inherit the top job – as three of the last four mayors have done.

Sure, other counties have a Chief Administrative Officer, but there’s a big difference – they don’t have any filler:

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In Montgomery and Prince George’s, there’s no doubt who’s in charge – the CAO works at the pleasure of the County Executive, who doesn’t need Council permission to replace them.

Meanwhile, Baltimore County shows the downside to a “non-political” administrative officer. A commission created by their new County Executive just released a report criticizing the County’s budget process as “highly centralized,” one that “has traditionally vested disproportionate power in the hands of the County’s administrative officer and a small staff in the budget office.” This has created a system that “lacks transparency, stifles innovation, and discourages accountability.”

Baltimore City once had similar problems, when its own budget process was driven by finance directors like Charles Benton or Ed Gallagher, who drafted the city’s budget like the man behind the curtain in Oz.

The problem the city has today isn’t an all-powerful mayor, but a system that begins and ends with a Board of Estimates created in the 19th Century. All of our peers seem capable of running a government without one.

Real change starts with looking not just to PG and MoCo, but to the reforms already made by cities like Detroit and Seattle and New York.

Adding a “city administrator” to a broken system isn’t real change, and tinkering with the budget process within that broken system isn’t either.

There’s nothing wrong with giving our City Council more say in the budget process, as is the case in MoCo or Prince George’s.

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But there’s no point in making the changes introduced this week to our City Council while leaving the rest of the dysfunction in place. Those changes give our City Council more power over the budget than other County Councils have, but then take away the mayor’s line item veto, for no good reason. 

I’ll resist the temptation to go even deeper into the weeds here. What we need to do is stop tinkering with something that needs a total overhaul.

Sure, “Baltimore is the only jurisdiction in the region that does not have a chief administrator.” But look around. Is that the real difference?

The real difference between the city and its peer jurisdictions is a pointless Office of the Comptroller, an unaccountable Office of the Council President, and a Board of Estimates that encourages corruption.

And there’s one more difference. Some of our peers have a full time Council that not only picks its own chairperson or speaker, but has at-large members:

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We don’t need a flurry of half-baked changes just to respond to the latest scandal. We need a thorough overhaul.

—Dan