Baltimore City’s ethics board is asking Mayor Brandon Scott to delay approval of a bill to reduce City Council members’ eligibility for pensions to eight years of service from 12 years, according to a letter obtained by The Baltimore Banner.
The bill narrowly passed the council by an 8-5 vote with two abstentions last week, following the passage of Question K, a charter amendment to limit City Hall elected officials to two four-year terms in office. The pension bill will become law if Scott signs it, or if three council meetings pass without a veto or signature from the mayor.
Board Chair Stephan Fogleman wrote that the legislation does not appear to be impartial “and that the appearance of or lack of impartiality could undermine — and may have already undermined — public confidence in the execution of city governance.” The board is asking Scott to not sign the bill until the board can decide whether the bill violates city ethics laws. Scott’s spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The board plans to make the letter public Tuesday morning.
Fogleman wrote the ethics board is concerned that it’s “impossible for the current Council, while in term, to have voted in favor of the amendment without giving the appearance of a conflict of interest; the terms of the Bill as written and approved by a majority of the Council serve the private and/or personal interests of the current council members themselves.”
City Council President Nick Mosby introduced the bill before Election Day, framing it as “a companion” to Question K, a charter amendment that passed overwhelmingly after Sinclair Broadcast Group Executive Chairman David Smith spent more than $500,000 funding a political action committee to gather enough voter signatures to put the measure on the November ballot.
“The citizens of Baltimore went out and resoundingly said that they want their city elected officials to have term limits of eight years,” Mosby said at a council meeting last week. “This just aligns us with that.”
Term limits will not kick in until 2024, when term counts would begin at one for all elected officials, including those who served previous terms. It would not prevent politicians from moving from one elected City Hall office to another after serving two terms in the first office.
At a hearing shortly before the election, Councilman Robert Stokes framed the bill as a way to avoid discouraging people from seeking elected office, noting that Smith’s group argued that term limits would bring new faces into Baltimore politics.
“How do we get young people that we want to be involved to run for office when they have to say, ‘Okay, I do two terms — eight years — in elected official position and I don’t have a retirement plan?’” he asked.
Finance officials weighed in unfavorably at the same hearing, saying they did not have enough time to conduct a study of possible long-term effects of the hastily introduced bill.
“While it may not be unconstitutional, it is highly unusual for elected officials to enhance their benefits while in term,” said David Randall, the executive director of the City of Baltimore Employees and Elected Officials Retirements Systems, known as ERS.
Multiple council members who voted against the bill, including Councilman Zeke Cohen, said they back a strong pension system for elected officials but cited concerns about timing and a lack of research about how the bill would impact city coffers
“We know that trust in government is strained. Any perception of self dealing is toxic,” Cohen wrote in a letter to Mosby urging a delay ahead of the vote. “Now more than ever our decisions must prioritize the people we serve over ourselves.”
Other members who voted against the measure include Odette Ramos, Ryan Dorsey, Phylicia Porter and James Torrence. Eric Costello and Mark Conway abstained.
Last week’s vote tally puts the bill within striking distance of a sustained veto. The council can override a mayoral veto with 10 votes.
This story has been updated.
Baltimore Banner reporter Justin Fenton contributed to this article.