April 07, 2015

Baltimore's City Council members often miss votes. "Where else in America can you not to show up for work and then [make] a decision on something that impacts 600,000 people? That's unacceptable."

A city Councilman Brandon Scott's bill seeking health grades for Baltimore restaurants was languishing in committee, partly because not enough members showed up to vote. Councilman William "Pete" Welch was a persistent no-show.

When the measure finally got to the council floor, Scott lashed out at Welch for casting a deciding vote to defeat it.

"Council members are refusing to show up for work," he told a phalanx of reporters and television cameras gathered at City Hall last month. "Where else in America can you not to show up for work and then [make] a decision on something that impacts 600,000 people? That's unacceptable."  

Scott's comments highlighted what some say is a big problem for Baltimore: poor attendance by City Council members at committee meetings where bills are debated, amended and sometimes killed. Such meetings are the only time council members can listen to public testimony about specific legislative proposals on topics ranging from police body cameras to public financing for the Harbor Point development.

A Baltimore Sun review of nearly 700 City Council committee votes — every bill for which a record was kept at City Hall since the start of the current term, Dec. 8, 2011 — shows that most members often miss those votes. On average, council members miss about a quarter of their committee votes. Three members —Robert Curran, Warren Branch and Helen Holton — missed 50 percent or more. Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector missed 40 percent of committee votes. 

Welch missed 32 percent of his committee votes — more than 100 votes.

Nina Therese Kasniunas, an assistant professor of political science at Goucher College, called missing 40 percent and more of one's votes an "alarming" pattern.

"There is an expectation that the voters elect a public official, and they are in essence hired for the job," Kasniunas said. "We're expected to show up to our jobs every day, and they should be, too."

Attendance at full council meetings, typically held weekly on Mondays, is much higher. On average, council members missed about 7 percent of the nearly 800 votes reviewed by The Sun. At 19 percent, Holton missed the most council votes.  

The Sun analyzed members' presence for votes taken by the council and its committees. The city until recently did not kept track of attendance at meetings where no votes were taken. City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said the city in February began recording attendance at all meetings, including hearings and work sessions, and posting the information on the council website.

Young said members should try to attend all meetings. But he said the public should not be overly concerned about council attendance.

The 14 people elected to represent Baltimore's 14 City Council districts are considered part-time office-holders, each earning a salary of $63,000 a year. Young, as council president, holds a full-time position with a $108,000 salary. The president does not sit on council committees.  

Young said council members have conflicts that keep them from the office just as all workers do, such as illness, family emergencies and vacations. Council members generally work longer hours than what they're paid to do, he said, serving on boards and commissions, attending evening community meetings and responding to constituent concerns.

"We get calls on Saturdays and Sundays, late at night. Nobody is taking attendance of that," said Young, who stressed the importance of constituent service.

Some members have more meetings to attend because Young has appointed them to more committees. Members serve on as many as six committees and as few as one. For instance, City Council members Carl Stokes, Bill Henry, Spector, Welch and Branch were assigned to committees that voted on more than 300 issues during the term. By contrast, Scott was called upon to vote on only 66 matters.  

Young said he trusts members to use good judgment about when they need to attend their committee votes — and argued that no significant bill has died because some members did not show up. Votes on significant policy issues are more important than minor zoning changes or non-controversial appointments to advisory commissions, he argued.

"Our council works very hard," Young said. "We can't make every meeting on every committee. But the bottom line is: They get the work done."

He said the council in the current term has passed a long list of significant bills, including measures requiring local hiring for certain jobs, making it harder for employers to disqualify ex-offenders in job searches, and approving a public subsidy for the $1 billion Harbor Point development.

Baltimore voters will elect city council members in 2016, and most members said they are seeking re-election. Councilman James B. Kraft has said he will be running for a different office, while Stokes, Henry and Young said they were unsure of their plans. All of the council members are Democrats.

Missed votes became an issue in last year's race for Maryland attorney general, when The Sun reported that one candidate, state Del. Jon Cardin of Baltimore County, missed 75 percent of committee votes in theGeneral Assembly. He ultimately lost to Brian Frosh, a state senator from Montgomery County.

Welch's absence from meetings on Scott's restaurant bills prompted the first-term councilman to take some unusual steps. Scott commissioned a robocall in Welch's district advocating for the bill's passage. Scott also voted against adding Welch's name to an unrelated piece of legislation, pointing out that Welch had missed the meeting where others had signed on.

"He was not physically here, and we were not able to vote because he was not physically here," Scott said of Welch's repeated absences at committee meetings on the restaurant bill. "We know he didn't have the knowledge of the issue."

Scott wound up bypassing the committee and petitioned the bill to the council floor, where it failed by a single vote on March 23.


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