Baltimore: The City Where Mayors Still Run the Show

Of all American towns, Baltimore gives its mayors some of the most control. Some hate that, yet attempts to change it have failed.
by | July 2016
Baltimore's presumptive next mayor, state Sen. Catherine Pugh (Tribune News Service)

Catherine Pugh, who will become mayor of Baltimore at the end of this year, is determined to start lifting the city out of its longstanding morass of poverty and crime. Not everyone thinks she’ll be able to do it. If she fails to make serious progress, though, voters will know whom to blame. Baltimore gives its mayor some of the strongest formal powers of any city in the country, making it clear who runs the show.

When a Baltimore mayor presents her budget, members of the city council can only subtract from the total. They can’t raise program funding over the level proposed, nor can they shift money around between accounts. Over the years, that has led to plenty of fights over priorities, everything from afterschool programs to fire stations. But the mayor maintains the upper hand. “We really have a budget that comes to us that we have no real input into,” says Carl Stokes, a member of the city council. What’s more, the mayor controls the Board of Estimates, which signs off on city purchasing and contracts.

Stokes and most of his colleagues believe it’s time to rebalance power between the city’s executive and legislative branches. The time would seem to be ripe. Baltimore, following last year’s unrest after the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody, appears ready for change. That mood was heightened by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s decision not to seek re-election this year.

Twice in recent months, supermajorities on the city council voted to weaken the mayor’s control over the budget and the Board of Estimates. It takes a three-fourths vote to override a mayoral veto. In February, the council managed to pull off that feat for the first time since 1982, on a measure regarding enrichment programs for children. Sponsors of the budget changes were hopeful they could overturn Rawlings-Blake’s other vetoes and send charter amendments to the voters that would lessen the imbalance between mayoral and council power.

But it was not to be. Several members of the council either switched their votes, didn’t show up or abstained. Five voted to uphold each mayoral veto, as opposed to just one vote against each bill on passage.

Pugh, who is leaving her job as majority leader of the Maryland Senate to become mayor, lobbied hard to make sure the position’s job description didn’t change before she’s sworn in. As for the council, she said after the override votes that she’s looking forward to working with its members.