Baltimore voters approved a ballot measure Tuesday that will limit City Hall politicians to two four-year terms in each office. Question K is the only charter amendment on city ballots that was not written by city lawmakers, after a political action committee funded by a top Sinclair Broadcast Group executive spent more than $500,000 on canvassing efforts to collect 10,000 signatures from voters and host public awareness campaigns.
With about 98% of precincts reporting Election Day results, as well as results from early voting and mail-in ballots that were canvassed before Tuesday, nearly three-quarters of city voters have signed off on Question K.
Officials have counted 28,382 mail-in ballots that were received prior to Election Day. In the July primary, city voters returned two-thirds – about 34,579 – of the mail-in ballots they requested.
The measure will significantly shape the flow of power in City Hall, where a mayor has not served more than two terms since the last century but council members regularly serve more than eight years, though the earliest anyone would be forced to leave office is 2032. The measure does not go into effect until 2024, when all candidates would be limited to two future terms. Officials will be able to move from one office to the next.
Sinclair owns and operates WBFF, known as Fox45. The station is known for its conservative leanings; Fox45 frequently airs critical coverage of Mayor Brandon Scott and other city leaders. Chairman David Smith, who funded the political action committee associated with the measure, has often donated to Republicans.
Some city voters were aware of Sinclair’s ties to the measure.
Patrick Terhune, a project manager, and Lisa Hansen Terhune, who works in marketing, voted against the measure at their polling place at Mergenthaler Vocational Technical High School.
Hansen Terhune tied her opposition to her belief that term limits are ineffective, not to Smith’s funding of the PAC tied to the measure, though she feels irritated “that one extreme put so much money and momentum to try to get that on the ballot.” It often takes longevity for expertise to develop and systemic changes to occur, she said.
Terhune concurred. “You need to learn to navigate the bureaucracy and that’s hard to do if you’re restricted to just two cycles. You have to develop relationships,” he said.
Julius Franks, a public notary who voted in favor of Question K, argued that the time restriction would in fact force politicians to develop relationships that center on serving constituents instead of themselves.
“They tried to make it seem as though Fox TV was trying to be evil and deceptive,” he said. “But no, you need term limits, because if not, people will be corrupt. Look at “House of Cards,” the TV show. It’s a clear example: If you let somebody sit in politics for long term, they’re going to create relationships and agreements for their benefit and not for the benefit of the people.”
Natalia Bacchus, who works for the Baltimore Teachers Union, said she was somewhat aware of the Sinclair executive’s funding. “That was sketchy to me,” she said, but she attributed her vote against the measure to her disapproval of the concept, not its primary financier.
“If people are doing a good job, let the voters decide,” she said.
Other voters were unfamiliar with the measure’s funding. Donna Carolina, a case manager who lives near Mervo, where she cast her ballot, said she voted for the measure because she believes term limits have been effective in other forms of government. “If the president has only two terms in office, why not?” she said.
While the concept of term limits has enjoyed broad support from the public, analysis from most political scientists is more measured. Research suggests that while capping time in office can help youthful politicians ascend the ranks more quickly, term limits have not eroded the presence of career politicians who leap from one office to the next.
Question K stood out as the most debated charter amendment on the ballot. City Hall politicos hosted their own grassroots opposition campaigns against the measure, including organization from Larry Gibson, a professor at the Francis King Carey School of Law in the University of Maryland, Baltimore, and longtime adviser to Democratic city politicians, including former Mayor Kurt Schmoke. Gibson paid for the many anti-Question K signs placed in road medians throughout the city. Several unions also distributed signage and encouraged membership to vote against the measure.
Their opposition could not overcome a historical pattern: City voters tend to overwhelmingly pass ballot measures and have not struck down a measure since 2004. The rest of the city’s ballot questions, none of which drummed up the same level of fanfare, also received stamps of approval.
PASSED: Preventing the sale of Baltimore’s conduit system
Voters approved Question E, a measure that prevents the sale, transfer or franchising of Baltimore’s conduit system, a 700-mile underground network of ducts that houses wires for telephone, electric, fiber optic, and street and traffic light services.
Companies such as Comcast and Verizon pay Baltimore to access the system. In 2015, amid discussions among city leaders to increase the cost of access, Baltimore Gas and Electric Company attempted to buy the system for $100 million to no avail.
Then-City Council President Jack Young first introduced legislation to prevent the conduit’s privatization in 2019, saying the system could serve as both a potential tool to expand broadband service citywide and a continuous source of revenue.
The costs of maintaining the system outweigh the revenue it produces by about $7 million to $8 million every year, according to a spokesman for Mayor Brandon Scott. In early October, the administration put a $50,000 contract with a company specializing in conduit and telecom evaluations before the Board of Estimates. Critics, including Young, Council President Nick Mosby, and Comptroller Bill Henry, said the contract would incentivize the sale of the conduit.
Mosby, the chair of the spending board, deferred a vote on the contract until after this week’s election, effectively kneecapping any potential sale.
PASSED: Bolstering cash rewards for crime tips
Voters approved Question F, which will create a permanent fund in the city’s budget to supplement rewards offered to the public for tips that lead to apprehensions, arrests and convictions of criminal suspects. The fund would not be used as a substitute for, or replacement of, existing cash tips currently offered by the Baltimore Police Department and nonprofits, such as Metro Crime Stoppers.
Metro Crime Stoppers operates a 24-hour hotline and website where residents can anonymously submit tips. In the budget for fiscal year 2022, Scott allotted about $200,000 for the nonprofit, which offers $6,000 for tips about gun-related homicides and $4,000 for tips related to all other homicides. Families and loved ones of victims can contribute and raise additional reward money.
Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer proposed the Supplementary Criminal Apprehension and Conviction Fund last year, saying it would bolster equity by ensuring that residents do not have to lean on their personal networks to fund larger rewards.
A subsequent piece of city legislation must specify the fund’s operational details, including the exact amount of supplementary cash. Schleifer has said rewards should never be less than $10,000.
Question F’s approval and the passage of a council bill establishing the fund’s financial details would not guarantee that the mayor, who controls nearly all city spending, dedicates budget money to the fund.
PASSED: Creating a workforce training fund in honor of “Tater”
Voters approved Question G, which will create a permanent fund to support workforce development training, such as pre-apprenticeship programs in city public schools and community colleges.
Council President Nick Mosby introduced the charter amendment in honor of Dante “Tater” Barksdale, an activist and community leader at the forefront of the violence intervention program Safe Streets. Barksdale was shot to death in 2021 in East Baltimore’s Douglass Homes complex. Mosby has said that creating more job opportunities for at-risk youth will help prevent violence and honor Barksdale’s legacy.
As with the Supplementary Criminal Apprehension and Conviction Fund, the council will need to spell out the fund’s operational details in a future piece of legislation, which does not guarantee the mayor funds it.
PASSED: Restoring local control of the Baltimore Police Department
Voters passed Question H, which will restore local control of the Baltimore Police Department to City Hall for the first time since the Civil War era.
In 1860, state lawmakers seized control of the department during a period of bloody fighting between the proslavery Democratic Party and the xenophobic Know-Nothing Party, which ran City Hall and the Police Department. Since then, Baltimore officials have not exerted full authority over the agency. While the mayor can develop a crime plan and hire the police commissioner tasked with implementing it, they must seek approval from the Maryland General Assembly to change regulations as basic as police district maps.
Question H ended up on the ballot after a bill from city Democrats Sen. Cory McCray and Del. Melissa Wells to bring the question of local control over BPD to Baltimore voters gained approval from Annapolis lawmakers.
Control will transfer on Jan. 1.
PASSED: Removing officials under the OIG’s purview from the office’s advisory board
Voters passed Question I, which removes subjects of the Office of the Inspector General’s purview from the membership of the advisory board tasked with overseeing the office.
Inspector General Isabel Mercedes Cumming, the independent watchdog that investigates fraud, waste and abuse in City Hall, had fiercely criticized the board’s makeup, calling it ripe for potential conflicts of interest. She has noted that board members have been involved in multiple OIG investigations; Cumming has not specified whether members were involved as subjects of reports or as whistleblowers, citing confidentiality rules.
Councilwoman Odette Ramos wrote the charter amendment after the panel met last summer to issue Cumming a performance evaluation.
Going forward, the board will consist of 11 city residents who are not elected officials, candidates for office or lobbyists. Seven of them will be chosen at random from those nominated by council members from their districts. Two members will be the deans of the University of Baltimore and the University of Maryland schools of law. One member will be from a group of certified public accountants and one member will be from a group of fraud examiners.
PASSED: Moving vendor payment oversight from the mayor’s office to the comptroller’s
Voters approved Question J, which will move oversight of the city’s embattled third-party vendor payment system out of the finance department and to the city’s Office of the Comptroller.
The Department of Accounts Payable, which is housed in the city’s finance department, is responsible for paying an average of 10,400 vendor invoices each month. Employees in the bureau’s accounts payable division will now shift to the comptroller’s office; payroll responsibilities would remain within the mayor’s office.
Comptroller Henry has said he’s received complaints from business owners who had to lay off employees because it took months or more than a year to receive payment for work performed for the city. Such delays caused BPD to borrow as much as a six-month supply of analytical reagent, the compound used to cause a chemical reaction in DNA testing, from other labs in the state.