Mayor Brandon Scott has vetoed a bill that would have reduced City Council members’ eligibility for pensions to eight years of service from 12 years, after Baltimore’s ethics board warned the legislation could undermine public confidence in city government.
In a letter delivered to the bill’s sponsor, Council President Nick Mosby, Scott wrote that maintaining public trust is paramount to his ability to perform the duties of his office.
“When I took my oath of office as a Baltimore City elected official, I swore to execute my duties without partiality or prejudice,” he wrote. “Given the potential for ethical issues with the bill ... I cannot in good conscience sign City Council Bill 22-0292 into law without the benefit of a complete and thorough analysis.”
Mosby did not immediately respond to a request for comment, nor has he said whether he will attempt to override the veto, which would be an uphill battle given how narrowly the bill originally passed out of the council.
He introduced the legislation before Election Day as “a companion” to Question K, a charter amendment to establish limits of two terms for elected offices in City Hall. City voters overwhelmingly passed the measure, which landed on the ballot after Sinclair Broadcast Group Executive Chairman David Smith spent more than $500,000 funding a political action committee to gather enough voter signatures.
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 in their current positions. It would not prevent politicians from seeking a different city office after serving two terms.
The bill narrowly passed last week in an 8-5 vote with two abstentions. The council can override a mayoral veto with 10 votes.
In a letter delivered to Scott on Tuesday, Ethics Board Chair Stephan Fogleman stopped short of calling the legislation outright unethical but urged the mayor to delay passing the measure until the board had time to issue a formal opinion on whether it violates Baltimore’s ethics laws for elected officials.
He wrote 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.”
Several council members who voted against the bill, including Councilman Zeke Cohen, said they support a competitive retirement plan system for elected officials, but were concerned about the bill’s timing and a lack of research about how it would affect the pension system.
“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.”
Cohen praised Scott’s veto, saying the people of Baltimore deserve better. Other members who originally voted against the measure include Odette Ramos, Ryan Dorsey, Phylicia Porter and James Torrence. Eric Costello and Mark Conway abstained.
At a hearing for the bill, Councilman Robert Stokes framed reducing the time required to qualify for a pension as a way to avoid discouraging people from seeking elected office. He noted that Smith’s PAC argued that setting term limits would force a cyclical turnover of city politicians that would prevent ineffective leaders from staying put.
“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 an elected official position and I don’t have a retirement plan?’” he asked.
Council members — who represent a total of 14 city districts — have held longer tenures than most citywide elected officials, such as the mayor and City Council president, in recent memory. In 2032, the earliest election cycle that council members would be forced out of their district office, officials with less than 12 years in city government could continue to work toward a pension through unelected positions, such as working in a city agency or as an aide to an elected official.
The bill did not reduce the time needed for other city staffers to qualify for pensions.
Pension officials weighed in unfavorably at the same hearing, saying that while the system is currently 100% funded, they could not predict the long-term effects of the hastily introduced bill without conducting a study.
“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 Retirement Systems, known as ERS/EOS.
Scott’s decision marks the second veto of his nearly two years as mayor. His first veto killed a renter’s insurance bill championed by Mosby.