A City Council staffer popped onto the regular online Monday luncheon meeting today with an unusual announcement:
“Very shortly before this lunch, I heard from our partners at CharmTV that, due to some unforeseen circumstances, we may not be able to broadcast this evening’s Council meeting live,” said Matthew Stegman, director of fiscal and legislative services for Council President Nick Mosby.
Among City Hall watchers, this raised eyebrows because one of the Council’s most controversial recent bills happens to be on tonight’s agenda:
Mosby’s proposal to decrease from 12 to eight the number of years a Baltimore elected official would need to earn a pension.
UPDATE: The bill advances on 2nd reader, with 9 voting yes, 2 voting no and 3 abstaining. More below.
“It’s weird that the TV station crashed all of a sudden right before this,” a City Hall insider said, noting a previous apparent glitch involving the same Council bill 22-0292.
For some reason, Charm TV did not do a live broadcast of the hearing last Thursday at which the Education, Workforce and Youth Committee voted 5-2 to advance the bill – over objections from the city retirement system and the Department of Finance.
There is no archived video of the session in which Council members John Bullock, Antonio Glover, Sharon Green Middleton, Phylicia Porter and Robert Stokes voted for the bill and Zeke Cohen and James Torrence voted against it.
Mosby, who was said to be traveling, did not attend today’s luncheon.
Hours after his staff announced the problem with tonight’s broadcast, Comptroller Bill Henry tweeted that a workaround had been found:
“FWIW, you can watch tonight’s Council meeting on Webex or calling in: https://bit.ly/3WAgyAh Password: Public +1-408-418-9388 Access Code: 2349 172 741,” @BillforBmore tweeted.
“The meeting will be posted to Charm TV’s youtube page later this week,” Henry added.
Mosby’s bill is a direct response to Question K, the term limits measure before voters on the general election ballot tomorrow.
The bill, which Mosby introduced just two weeks ago, would only take effect if city voters approve term limits.
A subject of intense lobbying, Question K would limit the mayor, City Council members and the comptroller to two consecutive terms in office.
The cap would not be imposed until 2024, with the count of terms starting that year.
Elected officials could serve in different elected positions over the course of their careers, but they would be constrained by a two-term limit for each office.
The proposed pension bill would benefit several sitting Council members. As written, elected officials who have served since December 1, 2016 would be pension-eligible after eight years.
“Perception of self-dealing”
Supporters of Mosby’s bill say it is needed because Question K disincentivizes people in the future from seeking office since they would potentially be term-limited out of a pension.
Prominent critics have opposed the legislation. They include David Randall, executive director of the Baltimore Employees’ and Elected Officials’ Retirement Systems.
In a letter to the Council, Randall questioned the measure’s propriety.
“While it may not be unconstitutional, it is highly unusual for elected officials to enhance their benefits while in term,” Randall wrote.
“It is highly unusual for elected officials to enhance their benefits while in term” – Pension director David Randall.
And he warned that the change might be unwise fiscally.
While the city’s retirement plan for elected officials is fully funded at the moment, Randall wrote, the legislation, along with market conditions, “have the potential to reduce the funding status below 100%, at which time there will be a cost to the city.”
Deputy Finance Director Robert Cenname agreed, recommending that the Council slow down and allow the pension system to study the issue and come up with more cost-effective approach.
Speaking with The Brew, the First District’s Cohen agreed.
“It’s not wrong to want to adjust [vesting requirements] if K passes, knowing the impact in the future when it takes effect, but I don’t understand the rush,” he said.
Speeding the measure through the process sends a bad message to citizens.
“It’s important to acknowledge that even the perception of self-dealing erodes the public trust in government.”
From Tonight’s Meeting
Explaining his “no” vote on the bill, Councilman Ryan Dorsey called it “premature,” agreeing with Cohen.
“If Question K passed tomorrow, every single person in here will still have an opportunity to vest in the pension as it is today with 12 years because not one person in this room will be prohibited from serving a second term starting in 2024 or a third term starting in 2028. Nobody in this room will be affected by Question K until 2032,” Dorsey said.
“We literally have a decade to give more consideration to whether we want to make changes to our pension system,” he said, addressing the chamber.
Eric Costello, Phylicia Porter and Mark Conway abstained, saying they did so because it would be improper to vote on a measure that directly benefited them.
“Having served in elected office for eight years and 33 days, if this charter amendment, Question K, along with this ordinance passed, this will immediately impact me directly by making me vested immediately the day it passes,” Costello said.
“It’s a pension system that’s already overfunded. It’s in really, really good shape” – Nick Mosby.
Bill sponsor Mosby, meanwhile, said the measure was intended to responsive to the citizens who appear inclined to shorten the amount of time elected officials can keep their seats.
“If they are no longer supportive of us having an unlimited amount of time in office and are really supportive of term limits this bill speaks directly to that,” he said.
As for concerns about his proposal’s effect on city finances, Mosby brushed them aside.
“It’s a pension system that’s already overfunded. It’s in really, really good shape,” Mosby said. “There’s no concern there.”