Just days into 2017, newly elected City Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer introduced a bill to impose term limits on Baltimore’s elected officials.
It was promptly put in a drawer, where it has sat for more than a year.
Councilman Ryan Dorsey, a fellow freshman, tried to pass “Complete Streets” legislation to create more bike lanes, bus lanes and sidewalks in Baltimore.
It’s bogged down amid a dispute with the city’s transportation department.
And new Councilman Kris Burnett threw himself behind legislation to require employers in Baltimore to pay a minimum wage of $15 per hour. It passed — but was quickly vetoed.
Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh announced that she will veto the bill passed by the City Council that would raise Baltimore’s minimum wage to $15 an hour. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
Baltimore elected eight new lawmakers to the 15-member council in November 2016, a historic turnover that offered the hope of a new day in a city long beset by poverty and crime. But if they thought their freshman year would be filled with legislative victories, they soon found out how hard it is to bring about sweeping change.
With an escalating murder rate and deep funding and infrastructure problems in the schools, the rookies have often found themselves reacting to emergencies and pushing to restore cuts to services — rather than passing a forward-looking agenda. Proposals to reform the city’s troubled water billing system to help poor families and to make housing more affordable, for example, have languished in the face of bureaucracy, opposition and more immediate pressing concerns.
“For me, it was a challenging first year,” Burnett said. “We walked into a lot of challenging issues. We were playing from behind a lot.”
Goucher College political scientist Mileah Kromer says the reality of governing in a legislative body is that change does not often come about quickly. With checks and balances and competing views, it takes time to build coalitions. Often incremental improvements become more achievable than sweeping reforms.
“This is the reality of our system of government,” said Kromer, director of Goucher’s Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center. “You can come in as an idealist but you have to learn to work within the larger political environment.”
As water mains break and boilers fail, council members often find their days occupied with badgering city agencies to make sure their constituents have basic services.
“It’s the difference between high-minded change and the reality of frozen pipes,” Kromer said.
One lesson council members say they quickly learned is the importance of getting along with City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young.
Young, who has served on the council for more than 20 years and led it for nearly eight, determines who chairs important council committees and who sits on them. Once bills are filed, Young decides to which committees they go.
In 2017, it wasn’t uncommon for Young to assign bills that could have gone to the housing committee or the public safety committee to the judiciary committee, which is chaired by Councilman Eric T. Costello, a pro-business Democrat.
A Baltimore Sun analysis of City Council legislation over the past year showed more bills were assigned to Costello’s committee than any other.
Notably, Young assigned a bill to impose a one-year mandatory sentence for illegal gun possession to judiciary, where it had several supporters, rather than the public safety committee, where a majority opposed it.
“It was fast-tracking a bill that would have died had it gone in the appropriate committee,” Dorsey said.
The legislation ultimately was passed by Costello’s committee, then weakened and approved by the full council.
Young told The Sun he assigned the bill to Costello’s committee because he believed he would handle it responsibly.
“I don’t want to get into personalities, but I sent it to where I thought it would get a good hearing,” Young said.
Schleifer’s term limits legislation — which would have limited the mayor, comptroller and council members to no more than three four-year terms in office — was not assigned to any committee.
“I’ve requested a few times to get a hearing,” Schleifer said. “People want to state opinions both for and against it. A committee should get to make a decision on whether it should proceed.
“I think it’s a good proposal and good bill. Now that it’s sat there for a year, I feel even stronger about it now than when I introduced it.”
Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke introduced legislation in July that would have directed the Department of Public Works to go back to holding informal conferences with people who dispute their water bill.
Advocates for poor homeowners say the conferences, which were eliminated when the water department switched to a new automated monthly billing system in 2016, were an informal and affordable way for unhappy customers to get help. The Department of Public Works says its new appeals process is more consistent.
Clarke said she agreed to let Young hold the bill back while his team worked on drafting a more comprehensive overhaul of how the city charges for water and handles disputes.
Clarke, a former council president who has served on the council for 40 years, expected Young to introduce his broader legislation in October. But more than six months after she introduced her bill, his has yet to appear.
Clarke said the delay means people her bill could have helped have missed an opportunity.
“I made a commitment, but we could at least have had some personal appeal opportunities for so many people,” she said.
Clarke said there’s nothing much she can do by herself because the water department is opposed to holding the conferences again.
“My only chance with the bill is to cooperate,” she said. “Because the department’s against it, I need the president of the council.”
Young said he thinks some of the newer council members are still going through a “learning curve.”
“I didn’t get a bill passed my first year,” he said. “It took me two or three years. It takes time to get this stuff done.”
Kromer, the Goucher political scientist, said some of the friction reflects simple political differences.
“This is not a unified group of people,” she said. “There are certainly factions within it. They’re all Democrats but they’re different shades of blue.”
Most of the eight newcomers — John T. Bullock, 39, Burnett, 31, Zeke Cohen, 32, Dorsey, 36, Leon F. Pinkett, 50, Schleifer, 30, Shannon Sneed, 36, and Robert Stokes Sr., 59 — ran on pledges to push a more progressive agenda than their predecessors, including increasing the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Young pushed back against the suggestion that some of the new council member’s bills are too liberal for his taste.
“You’re talking to one of the most progressive people around,” he said. “I’ve been very progressive. I’m all about change for the better.”
He pointed to his legislation requiring police to wear body cameras, his call for a federal investigation into police corruption and his outspoken criticism of police overtime abuse. Two years ago, he championed the creation of a $12 million fund for children and youth programs.
He said he plans to push legislation next year to reform city water-billing and bolster affordable housing.
“I go around and I share ideas with council people,” he said. “I want them to shine. If they shine, my leadership shines.”
Shortly after the newcomers took office, the city was hit with a crisis: A $129 million budget deficit in the school system. At the same time, Mayor Catherine Pugh’s first budget proposal cut funding for Safe Streets. The MTA cut bus service for after-school programs.
In each of these instances, council members say they worked hard to fix the problems that arose.
“I felt like a lot of defense was played in the first year,” Burnett said. “I hit the ground hard in my district, doing things like a community academy and community cleanups. Individually it felt hard for me to push my own agenda from a legislative perspective.”
Burnett said he plans to push a more robust policy agenda in 2018 that will include bills cracking down on human trafficking and addressing housing problems.
“I have three housing bills in right now,” he said. “These are all things I wanted to do last year.”
One lesson Burnett said he learned in his first year: It helps to get Young on board with a bill early in the process. Burnett noted that Sneed successfully passed a bill protecting contract workers who face layoffs when their employer loses a job to a competitor.
“Every bill doesn’t automatically get a hearing,” he said. “You look how quickly things happen in Annapolis. Things happen more slowly here. The council president has a lot of power to shape the agenda. I’m trying to build a relationship with the president.”
In the new members’ first official act, the council voted unanimously to condemn President Donald J. Trump’s "divisive and scapegoating rhetoric, rooted in hate and prejudice.”
The resolution was sponsored by Dorsey. The vote drew cheers and applause in the crowded City Hall chambers.
Local political analyst Catalina Byrd said making that resolution the first official act of the new council emphasized a desire to pursue symbolic victories instead of substantial policy.
“The first thing they did was rebuke Trump,” Byrd said. “Most of the year has been rhetoric without any substance.”
Byrd did credit council members with fighting for kids. She called Cohen’s push to restore bus service for after-school programs “the most successful thing” accomplished by the new council.
“There are some that are learning and some that are trying to do it their way,” she said.
Dorsey has found himself butting heads with the administration of Mayor Pugh.
“I wish that we had an actual partnership between policy-minded members of the City Council and the administration,” he said. “I don’t think that’s the case.”
He cited his ‘Complete Streets’ proposal, aimed at forcing the city’s Department of Transportation to provide more bike lanes, sidewalks and public transit options. “I’m putting forth a policy that’s based on best practices, and DOT is resistant to it on the basis that they don’t want to be bound by law in how to do their job,” Dorsey said.
He said the administration is often resistant to policy ideas that come from the council.
“For many years, the council has not really been about making the policy changes that are really going to improve the quality of life in Baltimore and stop the loss of life and population,” he said. “I get the sense the mayor doesn’t think the new City Council is capable of knowing what it’s doing because we’re too young. We know what we’re talking about.We have an administration that is stuck in the old ways.”
Pugh said council members shouldn’t feel frustrated. She advised them to focus on providing strong constituent services, not necessarily on passing major legislation.
“When I was on the council, I asked William Donald Schaefer, ‘What would make me a good city council person?’ He said ‘Attend hearings, engage your community and answer your constituents.’
“My focus was on neighborhoods and communities. I don’t remember a lot of legislation that I did. I do remember attending a lot of community meetings. I believe my responsibility was to be helpful.”
City Councilman Brandon Scott, who was elected to the council in 2011 but at 33 is younger than many of the rookies, describes himself as the first of the new guard. He said there are several issues he wishes would move more quickly.
Scott wants the council, not the Maryland General Assembly, to have legislative authority over the Baltimore Police Department. He wants to tax plastic bags and require restaurants to post health inspection grades.
“Things should be moving faster than they are in many cases,” he said. It’s important for us to keep pushing.”
He thinks the council’s younger wing will soon overrun the establishment.
“This is the last stand for the old guard and the old way of thinking,” he said.
Whatever happens, Burnett said, they’re all feeling pressure from constituents to deliver.
“In talking to some people, they say, ‘I thought you guys would be doing more,’” Burnett said. “We’ve got to live up to the hype. And I believe we will.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Ian Duncan contributed to this article.