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The (Limited) Power Of Baltimore's City Council President
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Monday, September 12, 2011
Eight candidates are running for the job of Baltimore City Council President. The position has limited powers... in part, because Baltimore relies on what’s called a strong-mayor form of government. WYPR’s Sarah Richards provides this crash course on the powers of the position, in advance of tomorrow's primary election.
When it comes to running a city in 21st-century America, there are two ways to do it. There’s the council-manager form of government. That’s when a professional manager is appointed by the city council to run a city’s day-to-day operations. The city council makes policy; the city manager implements it. Then, there’s Baltimore’s strong-mayor form of government. Mike McGrath is the chief information officer for the National Civic League.
“The strong mayor form of government is in some ways it’s like the federal government in that there’s sort of a separation of powers between different government agencies. The mayor is like the President, the executive. The city council is like Congress, it’s the legislature. Then there are city departments off to the side that of which are governed or managed by the mayor’s office or departmental heads underneath the mayor’s auspices.”
Within Baltimore’s system, the City Council President is compared by some to the Speaker of the House in Congress—an individual who can set the agenda and gather support for a specific issue. Eric Zeemering is an assistant professor at the University of Maryland public policy department. He teaches public management and follows local government and urban policy issues. He says voters should think of the Council President as having broad responsibilities.
“Power is a funny word. And a lot of power can come to an individual through their ability to persuade and lead other people towards decisions. And the council president can exercise that persuasive power both on the City Council as a whole and on the Board of Estimates.”
The Board of Estimates is Baltimore’s all-important spending bureau. Still, the Council President is out-gunned on the five-member board. John Bullock is an assistant professor at Towson University. He teaches urban governance and politics.
“The council president serves on the Board of Estimates. We also know that is dominated by the mayor, being that the mayor is able to appoint three members to the board of estimates. So again, the mayor is very strong.”
Strong — but still human. If for any reason Baltimore’s mayor can no longer carry out his or her duties, the city council president is first in line to become mayor. And as Baltimore discovered 18 months ago, that’s hardly a far-fetched possibility. John Bullock.
“Quite often, this is what has happened. We have a current mayor who ascended from the city council president’s office. And our previous mayor prior to her also got to the mayor’s office by being moved up from city council president to the mayor.”
And so the position of city council president has in recent years become quite important after all. The current president is Bernard “Jack” Young. This is his first city-wide election campaign. Four years ago, there were four different Democrats vying for City Council President – Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Michael Sarbanes, the late City Councilman Ken Harris, and Charles Ulysses Smith. Rawlings-Blake was the second consecutive City Council president to succeed to the Mayor’s office. Her predecessor, Sheila Dixon, took over for Martin O’Malley, who left the post when he was elected as governor.
Young was elected to the post by his fellow council members after then-president Stephanie Rawlings-Blake replaced Sheila Dixon. He’s running against four other Democrats: ex-Senator Theatre owner Thomas Kiefaber, retired U.S. Postal Service manager Renold Smith, retired construction project manager Leon Hector, Sr. and Charles Ulysses Smith.
Three other candidates are running--Republicans Armand Girard and David Anthony Wiggins, and Libertarian Lorenzo Gaztañaga.
I'm Sarah Richards, reporting in Baltimore, for 88-1 WYPR.
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