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Mobtown Beat

We've Got Issues

The bottom of the ballot proves an odd and sometimes fascinating place

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If numbers are any indication, giving Baltimoreans a chance to vote on legislative issues—the bottom-of-the-ballot measures known as ballot questions—is just a formality. The city posed 45 questions to its residents over the course of the last three elections (2004, ‘06, and ‘08) and only one was voted down—a measure that would have lowered the minimum age requirement for City Council members from 21 to 18. The rest were passed overwhelmingly.

This year, city residents face three statewide and 11 city issues. The city questions are divided into amendments to the city’s charter (there are three) and the approval of various city loans (eight). The eight parties seeking city loans include public institutions such as schools (seeking about $33.4 million) and Recreation and Parks (about $12.9 million) as well as organizations such as the National Aquarium ($1 million), the Walters Art Museum ($500,000), and the Baltimore Museum of Art ($1.2 million).

It’s all pretty standard stuff: Such organizations are “members of medium-sized group of major institutions that cycle through,” Councilmember Bill Henry (D-4th District) says. “Last time there was Everyman Theatre, Port Discovery. We’ll help some this time and two years from now we’ll help somebody else.”

Henry is vice chair of the Taxation, Finance, and Economic Development Committee, the group within the council that worked on the bond bills before they were presented to the voters. The General Assembly approves proposals from various institutions seeking portions of a pot to be divvied up; the council passes the groups on to the voters for a final decision.

That pot shrank this year, a first for the council. Normally, Henry says, the city loans out $60 million per year, or $120 million per two-year period. This year it’s $100 million over two years. “We voluntarily reduced our borrowing to accommodate the fact that we are projecting lower [revenues],” Henry says.

The loans support these organizations in various developmental aspects. The BMA is hoping to secure $1.2 million for a recently announced $24 million renovation project. The National Aquarium’s $1 million would go toward a $6 million renovation of the Wings in the Water exhibit, which houses sharks and sting rays. The Walters’ half million would supplement funds dedicated to a reorganization effort that would free up space for an expanding children and family art center and an undisclosed new exhibit recently donated to the museum.

“The biggest piece [of the budget] is private funding, and then state funding tends to be larger than city funding,” Walters Director Gary Vikan says, “but all three together make a very essential package.”

The three city charter amendments all, not surprisingly, deal with dollars as well. Question A asks voters to decide what the City Council should do with surplus funds that, for whatever reason, end up unspent. The amendment would undo a previous change to the charter that restricted the use of surplus funds in an effort to ensure that they were used fairly.

“Right now there’s a very strict set of parameters around how we would use surplus funds,” Henry, also a member of the Judiciary and Legislative Investigations Committee, says. “Now we can actually can treat it like we won the lottery, not like we found a bunch of money hidden in the sofa cushions but we can only use it to repair the windows, even though the kids are hungry.”

Question B would create a continuous fund dedicated solely to sustainability projects. (The amendment is largely spearheaded by Judiciary Committee chair Jim Kraft [D-1st District], who was out of the country and unavailable for comment.) The fund would not only ensure an availability of money for such efforts, Henry says, but would also allow for incoming money to be directed into the fund. Any money resulting from a tax on the use of plastic and paper bags, for example, could be directed into the fund to support environmentally minded efforts—an environmental offset, of sorts.

The final city charter amendment would, if passed, allow the council to adjust the procedures relating to procurement—allocating funds for day-to-day fundamentals such as buying office supplies or renting office space—mostly relating to the natural rise in costs of such necessities.

The statewide questions are not all so routine. One measure would raise the minimum amount for a civil trial to be presented to a jury rather than a judge from $10,000 to $15,000. The amount was raised from $500 to $5,000 in 1992, and again to $10,000 in 1998. (At the time of publication, City Paper was unable to find an official to comment on the issue.) Another asks Maryland voters if they’d like to hold a convention for the purpose of restructuring Maryland’s Constitution, a measure required to be put forth every 20 years, which brings up a slew of its own issues (“Pro and Con,” Mobtown Beat, Oct. 13).

Also at hand is a question of qualification for the three elected judges of the city’s Orphans’ Court, which hears cases related to estates and wills. Any Maryland citizen can run for the office in the city or county in which they would serve. The amendment up for vote seeks to add the stipulation that all judges must also be members in good standing of the Maryland Bar, and it’s causing a big drama in the obscure race (“Disorder in the Courts,” Mobtown Beat, Sept. 8).

In the September primary, voters chose 16-year incumbent Judge Joyce M. Baylor-Thompson, nine-year incumbent Judge Karen Friedman, and newcomer Ramona Moore Baker, a case mediator for the District Court. (All are Democrats and unopposed in the general election.) But it’s uncertain who will actually be sworn in. Friedman accepted an appointment as a District Court associate judge in August; according to Baylor-Thompson, 15-year incumbent Lewyn Scott Garrett will take Friedman’s place (even though Garrett lost in the primary). As for Baker, her fate is up to the voters: She’s not an attorney (all three current judges are), and it’s still unclear what will happen if the constitutional amendment passes.

Baylor-Thompson says she’s concerned not so much with Baker’s (or anyone else’s) capabilities as a non-lawyer, but with a potential backlog of case work owing to a law that states that two judges must observe any dockets and sign any related paperwork, unless the judge is an attorney, in which case he or she can act autonomously. Having Baker on the seat would require another judge to sit with her, which would slow up the process, Baylor-Thompson contends.

“This is not against Ms. Baker Moore [sic] or what her credentials are,” she says. “This is to maintain the quality of work that we’ve been able to establish.”

Baker thinks the issue is not the judges’ qualifications, but rather their current part-time hours. She’d rather they work together full-time to keep things moving. The court also faces problems when individuals or families on a particular day’s docket don’t appear, preventing the case from being heard.

“I’ve been there where the judges have not even stayed until 11 [a.m.],” Baker says. “The families don’t show up. That doesn’t have anything to do with me sitting on the bench.”

To back up her stance, Baylor-Thompson sought an opinion from the Attorney General’s Office. Assistant Attorney General David Hayes opined, in a letter dated July 8, for Baylor-Thompson’s side. He mentions that there is no precedent for the issue in Maryland, but cites cases in Wyoming and Florida that would support refusing to swear in Baker. He also notes that any individual who takes the oath of office must “‘faithfully . . . execute the office . . . according to the Constitution and Laws of this state.’ An individual elected, but unqualified for the office, could not take the oath, nor could an individual serving, but unqualified, continue to serve without violating the oath and the Constitution.”

“That is just up to his opinion,” Baker says. “We don’t always adopt what happens in other states, so we’ll just have to see how we adopt that. We’ll be setting a precedent here in Maryland. It will probably be litigated, and I’m not worried about it. I wish that my own party wasn’t behind this, but other than that I’m happy, and I’m ready to serve.”

And the voters, ready or not, will vote.

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