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In the wake of former Mayor Pugh’s Healthy Holly scandal, we look at how to reform a strong mayor system

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JAISAL NOOR: Just about everyone agrees things need to change at City Hall. Some point to the allegations of pay-to-play politics that brought down the mayor. Others say Baltimore’s strong mayor system, which grants the top official more power than any similar city, is a recipe for corruption. It’ll take amendments to the city charter to reform the system, and they must be directly approved by voters.

There’s two ways to get charter amendments on the ballot: gather enough signatures, or go through the city council. It’s worked before. In 2018, 75 percent of voters said yes to Question H, aimed at getting money out of politics. A recent report found campaign spending in Baltimore is dominated by developers, businesses, and PACs, and individuals–disproportionately white, male, wealthy, and older than the city’s residents overall.

The Fair Election Fund was introduced by Councilman Kris Burnett.

KRIS BURNETT: Because one of the challenges that we’ve seen is running for office is particularly expensive and particularly difficult if you don’t have the correct connections and know the right people. We want to change that balance, as well, because money in politics is really what we’re talking about here.

JAISAL NOOR: Burnett is now working on a proposal to raise money for the Fair Election Fund, which kicks off in 2024.

Members of the council have introduced four new amendments to check the mayor’s power. The first would give the council the power to remove a mayor. Currently the mayor can only be removed after a criminal conviction. The second would create a city administrator to oversee day-to-day operations. A third would reduce the number of votes needed to override a mayor’s veto. It’s currently 12. The amendment would reduce it to 10 of the council’s 15 members. Some say this could help pass progressive legislation, like the $15 minimum wage bill former Mayor Catherine Pugh vetoed after pledging to support it on the campaign trail. The fourth would grant the city council the power to add money to the city budget. Right now the budget is set by the mayor.

NABEEHAH AZEEZ: In 2017, Baltimore City outpaced several other similarly sized cities in their per capita police spending.

JAISAL NOOR: And a lot of people say the city’s priorities are out of whack. Too much money going to police, and not enough on schools, jobs, and helping people stay away from crime.

NABEEHAH AZEEZ: For every dollar that we spend on policing we’re spending about 51 cents on Baltimore City Public Schools, 15 cents on the Department of Housing and Community Development, 13 cents on Human Services.

JAISAL NOOR: Councilman Eric Costello has said he likely won’t hold hearings on the proposed charter reforms in the city council until June of 2020. And there’s no guarantees these reforms will pass. But citizens also have the power to get amendments on the ballot. You need to collect 10,000 signatures. In 2016, 83 percent of voters said yes to Question J, which said the city must create housing that’s affordable to its residents.

AMANDA DESTEFANO: One of the things that we learned in the first ballot initiative in 2016 to establish the Affordable Housing Trust Fund was that you need to start as early and as soon as possible.

JAISAL NOOR: That’s Amanda Destefano of United Workers, a lead organizer on the campaign.

AMANDA DESTEFANO: Getting 10,000 signatures requires you to talk to at least 50,000 people, just being conservative.

JAISAL NOOR: Before you can start collecting signatures, you need to get the language approved and create a Finance Committee, and track all spending, and report it to the city. Every signature must be from a registered city voter. In 2018, Communities United Better Budget campaign tried giving the council power over the budget, but couldn’t get enough signatures.

Some, like scholar, activist, and author Lawrence Brown, say it’s time for Baltimore to embrace participatory budgeting.

LAWRENCE BROWN: I actually advocate for Baltimore neighborhood reparations. And so as a part of that, 10 percent of our budget will be allocated towards redlined black neighborhoods. And those residents in those neighborhoods, they will be able to come together and decide how the money they get would be spent in their community.

JAISAL NOOR: But history has taught us that whatever structural changes take place, nothing is a substitute for mass movements, engaged people, who organize and fight for their interests.

This is Jaisal Noor.

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Jaisal is currently the Democracy Initiative Manager at the Solutions Journalism Network and is a former TRNN host, producer, and reporter. He mainly grew up in the Baltimore area and studied modern history at the University of Maryland, College Park. Before joining TRNN, he contributed print, radio, and TV reports to Free Speech Radio News, Democracy Now! and The Indypendent. Jaisal's mother has taught in the Baltimore City Public School system for the past 25 years. Follow him on Twitter @jaisalnoor.