As I go about my day in this election season, it seems that many of the people I encounter are much surer than I am about voting: “Of course, I am voting for so-and-so,” my friend Rivka says. “I am tired of what so-and-so did, and I want change!”
I don’t voice my thoughts, but I am thinking, what change do you want? Are you sure that the candidate you vote for can bring about that change? Maybe it’s all talk. Do you really understand the issues? Does it even matter who wins?
Our neighborhood is blanketed by colorful signs encouraging us to vote for candidates who are running in the city, state, or federal elections – and I keep reading in local publications, including this one, how important my vote is. Am I am alone in feeling completely inadequate in understanding whom to vote for or why to vote at all?
I decide to do some research on how our government works. I know this won’t help me decide on a candidate, but surely, understanding the importance of the various positions is the first step in making that decision. And the City government is a good place to start. After all, it is much smaller and less important than the state or federal governments, but the laws it passes affect our daily life much more than the laws of the bigger government bodies. For example, it is the City that decides when our garbage is collected, what special services our children can get, and which businesses are allowed in our neighborhoods. And although it is always important to vote, our votes count much more in a City than a federal election. Country-wide, our vote is one of millions, while in an election for mayor or city council, our vote is one of thousands or even hundreds.
The mayor is the “president” of Baltimore. He or she appoints City managers such as the heads of the departments of transportation, public works, and housing; the school board; and the police commissioner.
Because the mayor has the power to hire and fire the heads of all these departments, she is also responsible to make sure these departments are doing their jobs properly. For example, a local business man discovered to his horror that when the road in front of his business was fixed, they made it impossible to enter the parking lot in front of his store. That hurt his business. Such a mistake is the responsibility of the Department of Transportation. When we had the big blizzard this year and our streets were left unplowed for many days, that is the responsibility of the department of Public Works. When we drive through Baltimore and see hundreds of boarded up, abandoned houses, that is the responsibility of the Department of Housing. If crime rates soar, that comes under the purview of the Police Department.
The mayor is also a member of the Baltimore City Board of Estimates, which formulates and executes the fiscal policy of the City and is responsible for awarding contracts and supervising all purchasing by the city based on a formal bidding procedure.
Thirteen people are running in the mayoral election. They include a former mayor, two City councilmen, a former bank manager, a State senator, as well as a businessman, attorney, engineer, civil rights activist, and police sergeant. All of them are trying to distinguish themselves based on their past experience, record, and character. All of them are discussing the major issues – including education, jobs, and crime – with slightly different emphases. It is up to us to examine their records and their claims and decide who will do the best job to improve the problematic areas of City life. A city is a complex organization and running it requires a person with integrity, managerial experience, good ideas, and the personality to get the job done.
The City Council
The City Council is the “congress” of the city. It has 14 members, one from each of the 14 districts, and a president, who is elected by the whole City. The City Council president becomes the mayor if the mayor has to leave office for some reason. Our current mayor, Stephanie Rawlings Blake was president of the Baltimore City Council and became the mayor when Sheila Dixon had to step down. She was elected at the following election.
Each district of the City elects one City Council member every four years. A City Council member is paid $66,000 a year for what is considered a part-time job. According to an article in the Baltimore Sun (3/20/2106), the City Council is expecting a lot of turnover this year, because four of its members are not seeking reelection, and others are facing strong challengers, which leaves the door open for new and younger council members.
Most of our community lies in the Fifth District. For the last 39 years, our representative in the City Council has been Rikki Spector. She has been on the City Council for so long that she was given the nickname, Dean of the City Council. This year Rikki is not running, and seven people are competing for her seat.
The City Council members also serve as chairs or vice-chairs of its committees, such as health, recreation and parks, public safety, education and youth, budget and appropriations, and land use. When a bill is proposed to the City Council, it is assigned to a specific committee within the council, and to appropriate City agencies to be evaluated. A public hearing takes place for each bill. Baltimore citizens can obtain a copy of the public hearing schedule on a specific bill and have the opportunity to present opposition to it. After the public hearing, there is a second review of the bill with recommendations for changes. Finally, there is a third review. The bill is then sent to the mayor for approval, voted down by the Council, amended by the Council, or returned to the committee for further study.
Here is an example of the legislative process: The City Council is currently working on a bill called the Child Youth Investment Act. Rather than a simple bill, this bill is an amendment to the City’s charter. Introduced by Bernard C. “Jack” Young, president of the City Council, it will require that three percent of the City’s budget be set aside to aid non-profit entities that work with children and youth. This proposed amendment is significant because, aside from hopefully improving the lot of the City’s youth, it limits the power of the mayor. Usually, it is the job of the City Council to raise the money for the City from property taxes, parking ticket funds, etc., and it is up to the mayor to decide how the money will be spent. With this amendment, the City Council will have the power to automatically set aside this sum of money without the mayor’s input or approval.
The Child Youth Investment Act was passed by the City Council and sent to Mayor Rawlings-Blake. The Mayor vetoed it, saying it is fiscally irresponsible – first, because the City is already operating at a big deficit, and second because it would tie the hands of future mayors. The City Council overrode her veto. The amendment will not take effect, however, until Baltimoreans vote in November. This is because, unlike an ordinary law, this one is an amendment to Baltimore’s charter, a legal document that, like the U.S. Constitution, spells out how the government will operate and the rights of its citizens. Any amendment to the charter must be approved by the people.
Two other charter amendments will be on the ballot in the next election. Both of them also have the effect of reducing the power of the mayor. Why is this important? Baltimore’s charter set up a strong executive form of government as a fundamental principle. It is the mayor who articulates a clear vision for the city’s future and is granted the power to accomplish it by determining the budget and other priorities. While the “strong mayor” approach has served the City well, historically, some people believe that it has led to the mayor’s position becoming too strong. Aside from tying the hands of the mayor, these amendments open the door for more mandated spending amendments in the future, further diminishing the budgetary authority of the mayor. Those who disagree with the amendments point to the estimated $75 million deficit in the new fiscal year, and feel that the mayor’s role in fiscal management needs to be strong, not compromised. (See https://gbc.org/center-maryland-should-baltimore-alter-its-strong-executive-form-of-government/)
The Court System
Just as the federal government has courts, Baltimore City also has a court system to prosecute those who violate the law. The State of Maryland makes the laws and has an interest in prosecuting criminals who break those laws. Each jurisdiction in the State has a state’s attorney, representing the State’s interest. The state’s attorney for Baltimore City is Marilyn Mosby. She has the power to choose whom to prosecute and which cases to follow. She was chosen by election but is not up for election this year.
There are three levels to the court system: the district courts, the circuit courts, and the appellate courts. There is also the orphans court, which deals with wills and probate.
District courts try cases that are misdemeanors, meaning criminal cases in which the penalty is less than 90 days in jail, or civil cases that involve less than $30,000. District court judges are appointed for 10-year terms. There are no jury trials in district court. Either the defendant has a bench trial, which means a judge decides his fate, or he can plead guilty and accept the penalty without a trial at all. District court judges are appointed and not elected.
Circuit court is the highest trial court in the state of Maryland. It has four divisions: criminal, civil, family, and juvenile. Thirty-three judges sit on the circuit court, and they cycle through each one of the divisions for a year at a time. They also hear appeals from the district court. The judges on the circuit court are appointed by the governor whenever there is a vacancy. The appointment process is long and arduous, and involves filling out a very long application, being interviewed by many special interest groups, and then being interviewed again by the judicial nominating committee. Finally, the list of choices is sent to the governor, who reviews the nominations, interviews the candidates, and appoints one of them. The judge begins serving but must run for office at the first election after his or her appointment. Once elected, a judge serves for 15 years. There are also some judges who end up on the court without being appointed by the governor but simply by running for election.
This year, six judges appointed by the governor are up for election. There are also two outsiders, who were not nominated by the governor. So eight people are running for the six seats, and the six candidates who get the most votes will be on the circuit court. A voter will not be able to tell who is already on the circuit court, appointed by the governor, and who is not currently on the court but is running for election.
The Court of Appeals is the highest court in Maryland (called the Supreme Court in other states). Its chief judge is the highest position in Maryland’s court system, and hears cases with six other judges. The Court of Appeals can choose which cases to hear but is mandated to take cases involving the death penalty and legislative redistricting. The intermediate appellate court is called the Court of Special Appeals. Judges on the appellate courts are not elected. Rather, they have a “retention election,” meaning you can vote if they should keep their jobs, but no one can vote against them.
The more I delved into this subject, the more complicated I saw it is. I hope that you, my readers, will find this article informative and that, when you see a sign with a smiling picture suggesting you vote for a certain politician, you will at least have a general idea of what he or she is running for.
A number of politicians have chosen to advertise in this issue of the Where What When. To me, that means that they are interested in our community and realize that our vote is important. They are courting us, which will hopefully be to our advantage if they win the election. But we have to do our part by showing them that we participate in the electoral process. If we don’t vote, we don’t count! It’s that simple.
This year’s primary election will take place on April 26, during Chol Hamoed, from 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. at your polling station. If you are going away for Pesach, please make an effort to go to early voting, will take place April 14 to April 21 at the Baltimore Police Academy building (formerly Pimlico Junior High) side entrance on Clover Road, from 10:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.
I spoke to many people in order to gather information for this article. I would like to thank them for taking the time to patiently explain things to me even though to them the questions I asked might have seemed elementary.