Divided City Council cuts time needed for elected officials to qualify for pensions in wake of voter-approved term limits

Published on: November 21, 2022 8:59 PM EST|Updated on: November 22, 2022 8:22 AM EST

The exterior of Baltimore City Hall on August 17, 2022.

Less than two weeks after Baltimore City residents voted to limit their elected officials to two terms in office, City Council members voted Monday night to reduce the amount of time needed for their pensions to kick in from 12 to eight years.

The move came amid internal criticism over the proposal’s timing. Ahead of Monday’s vote, one council member wrote a letter urging Council President Nick Mosby, who had introduced the pension bill in late October, to table the matter. Meanwhile, backers of the term limits measure had threatened retaliation if city leaders went through with the change.

Still, the City Council voted 8-5 to approve the proposal, with two members abstaining. Councilpersons Zeke Cohen, Odette Ramos, Ryan Dorsey, Phylicia Porter and James Torrence voted against the proposal, while Councilmen Eric Costello and Mark Conway abstained.

The final tally fell two votes shy of the 10 needed for the council to override a veto by Mayor Brandon Scott, who hasn’t taken a public position on the bill.

Mosby framed the pension proposal as a direct response — or “companion” — to Question K, the charter amendment passed earlier this month limiting Baltimore’s elected officials to two terms, or eight years, in office. The only charter amendment on the midterm ballot not authored by city officials, the term limits proposal passed easily with the backing of a top Sinclair Broadcast Group executive, David Smith, who spent more than $500,000 to fund a political action committee to put the measure before voters.

“The citizens of Baltimore went out and resoundingly said that they want their city elected officials to have term limits of eight years,” Mosby told colleagues at Monday’s vote. “This just aligns us with that.”

The pension bill passed despite opposition from the city’s retirement system and finance department, which each advised against a rushed decision in a hearing earlier this month.

David Randall, executive director of City of Baltimore Employee’s and Elected Officials’ Retirements Systems, known as ERS, called it “highly unusual” for elected officials to enhance their own benefits while in office. Bob Cenname, of the city finance department, asked for more time to assess the ramifications, saying the change could have a significant impact on how much general fund money the city has to contribute into the pension system.

Several City Council members also argued for holding off on the vote, saying there was no reason to rush a decision. They warned against the optics of reducing the time needed to qualify for their pensions on the heels of the citywide term limits vote.

In a letter to Mosby on Monday morning, Cohen urged delay. He said that while he believes in having a strong pension system and recognizes the need for changes in light of Question K’s passage, the move sends “the wrong message” to residents and unelected city workers and “disregards the advice of experts.”

“We know that trust in government is strained. Any perception of self dealing is toxic,” Cohen wrote. “Now more than ever our decisions must prioritize the people we serve over ourselves.”

Others argued in favor of the measure to ensure that term-limited elected officials can still benefit from a “dignified retirement.” Councilman Kristerfer Burnett said he shared colleagues’ concerns about the timing of the vote, but feared that failing to reform the pension system in light of the new term limits law could discourage lower-income and residents of color from seeking public office.

“You’re asking people from all backgrounds to run for office,” Burnett said. But if you then tell them, “We’re not going to give you the ability to retire,” that could result in a mostly white, male and affluent elected body that doesn’t represent the diversity of Baltimore, he said.

Earlier in the day, backers of Question K broadcast their opposition to the pension reform, threatening to counter the move in the 2024 elections by pushing a referendum to reverse the pension plan — or even pursuing a charter amendment to eliminate pensions for elected officials entirely.

In a statement, Jovani Patterson, chairman of the People for Elected Accountability and Civic Engagement, called the pension bill “brazenly corrupt” and “the epitome of greed.”

“We will not stand by and idly watch this money grab and corruption take place without fighting back on behalf of the citizens of Baltimore,” Patterson said in a statement. The recent push for term limits by Patterson’s group was backed by Sinclair, which owns and operates WBFF, the conservative-leaning local news station known for its frequently critical coverage of the mayor and other city leaders.

Baltimore voters have historically tended to approve ballot measures, and though term limits garnered the smallest share of support of all the referendums on this year’s ballot, it still received the backing of 72% of voters.

Ramos also attempted to introduce an amendment Monday night, but wasn’t able to because Mosby said the council’s voting process had already begun. The councilwoman’s amendment would have reduced the pension vesting time but applied it only to officials elected in 2024 and after, ensuring that no sitting council members were voting on their own benefits. Ramos then opted to vote against the bill after supporting it two weeks ago.

The ramifications of Baltimore’s new term limit rules for sitting officials remain distant. The clock activating term limits doesn’t start ticking until 2024, at which point the count for all elected officials will start at one term. The approved ballot measure does not bar officials from moving from one elected office to another after serving two terms in the first office.

For that reason, some council members argued there was little reason to move so quickly. Councilman Ryan Dorsey noted Monday night that no one on the council would be term-limited under Question K until 2032.

“We have a whole decade to make any changes and yet we are taking this action before” Question K has even gone into effect, Dorsey said. “I just can’t understand why we’re doing this.”

Under Baltimore’s pension system, officials elected before 2016 receive benefits equivalent to 2.5% of the salary for their highest-ranking position, multiplied by their years of service. Officials elected after 2016 are paid at the same rate, but their benefits are limited to 60% of their retirement salary. Both plans include incremental rate increases.

Baltimore’s pension system for elected officials is currently fully funded, and officials are eligible to begin receiving payments at age 55. In the 2022 fiscal year, the system paid out $1.5 million to 31 retirees and beneficiaries, according to Randall, the system’s executive director.

Scott, a first-term Democrat, has until early next year to make a decision on the proposal. The City Council would require a 10-vote majority to override a veto.