Charter amendments funded by Sinclair Broadcast Group chairman could appear on Baltimore ballots this fall – Baltimore Sun

Two ballot questions backed by an infusion of cash from the chairman of Sinclair Broadcast Group could be put to voters this fall in Baltimore.

City election officials are reviewing petition signatures for two potential questions for voters: Do they want to establish recall elections for city politicians who do not meet the standards? And would they put a two-term limit on the mayor, city council, and city comptroller?

The campaign to get the questions on the ballot was undertaken by a group called People for Elected Accountability & Civic Engagement. The organization was created in February and funded almost entirely by David Smith, executive chairman of Sinclair, a Hunt Valley-based broadcast company, according to a July 25 campaign finance report. Sinclair operates 185 television stations in 86 markets, including WBFF-TV, known as Fox 45, in Baltimore.

Smith gave $385,000 to the group in two donations, most in March. The organization paid more than $315,000 to Rowland Strategies, a Fells Point consulting firm, while law firm DLA Piper received about $61,000, according to filings.

Fox 45 News has frequently raised the idea of ​​recalling Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott, who began his four-year term in December 2020. Baltimore’s charter provides no mechanism for the public to remove office holders and does not limit the number of terms that elected leaders can serve. .

In December, the station ran a story titled “Should Baltimore’s City Charter Allow Recalls of Elected Officials?” This describes the steps necessary to amend the charter to allow recall elections. Around the same time, the station conducted an unscientific survey that asked people if they would like to see Scott recalled. Another report – “As frustration mounts over Baltimore crime, questions arise over mayoral recall” – ran two days later. In it, a reporter said the survey showed that 200 people, or 95% of those who participated, supported Scott’s recall.

One earlier report, in March 2021, noted the results of another informal survey. He asked more than 1,000 people if they wanted the power to remove elected leaders statewide. The report says 83% of those who participated would “start a recall petition campaign, instead of calling or writing a letter, or waiting for the next election.”

Mitchell Schmale, a spokesman for Smith, said Sinclair’s chairman would not answer questions about the effort “out of respect for the ongoing review process within the board of elections.”

Jovani Patterson, a former Republican candidate for City Council president and chairman of the petitions committee, initially agreed to an interview with The Baltimore Sun. The next day, when the interview was scheduled, he released a statement instead.

“Out of respect for the ongoing review process by the Baltimore City Board of Elections, we have decided not to speak about our charter amendment petitions at this time,” Patterson said.

The proposed charter amendments would put power back in the hands of Baltimore residents and ensure elected officials have “our best interests at heart,” according to Patterson’s statement.

“These changes to our local government are vitally important – now more than ever,” he said. “If there’s one thing politically that Democrats and Republicans support in substantial numbers, it’s the concept of term limits in government.”

Patterson declined to answer questions about how he obtained funding for the initiative and what kind of efforts were made to collect signatures.

The city charter requires 10,000 signatures for a question to appear on the ballot. The petitioners submitted 19,448 signatures for the term limits measure and 11,025 for the recallable election provision, according to election officials.

City Board of Elections officials have until Monday to review the signatures to make sure the names and addresses match the voter registration files. The petition sheets themselves are also checked for signs of fraud or failure to follow proper procedures.

Experienced petition organizers say 15,000 signatures is usually a safe number to submit, knowing that some are likely to be rejected.

Scandal gripped the administrations of several Baltimore elected officials, but impeachment of office holders proved difficult. It was a plea deal, not action by voters or elected officials, that forced Democratic Mayor Sheila Dixon out of office in 2010. Dixon had pleaded guilty to perjury and was convicted of embezzlement.

In 2019, when Democratic Mayor Catherine Pugh’s role in a self-dealing scandal became apparent, city council members discovered they had no mechanism to force her out of office. Pugh eventually resigned amid mounting pressure.

After he left, voters in 2020 approved a charter amendment allowing the city council to remove a mayor, comptroller or council member for incompetence, misconduct in the line of duty, willful neglect of duty or a crime. or misdemeanor in the performance of his duties.

The concept of recall elections has been around for over 100 years in the United States, first popularized during a wave of “direct democracy innovations” in the early part of the 20th century, but they were never currents, said Seth Masket, a professor of political science and director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver. Masket studied both recallable elections and term limits.

A successful move to recall California Governor Gray Davis and seat actor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2003 is among the most memorable recall efforts. Masket said most fail; Davis was exceptionally unpopular and Schwarzenegger was an unusually popular alternative, he said.

The concept of recall elections is popular with voters in the abstract. The reality is sometimes different, Masket said.

“When you see these elections on the line, voters quickly find them a bit crude,” he said. “In most states, voters are already inundated enough with elections as they are. There are primary, state, and local elections, and then another election comes around. People are shocked that this is a thing.

Term limits are more popular, Masket said. A wave of state legislatures passed term limits between 1990 and 1992, and even now, almost every time term limits land on the ballot, they are approved, he said. In Maryland, however, only the governor is limited to two four-year terms.

Their effectiveness is questionable, Masket said. Research has shown that legislative branches typically weaken with term limits when less experienced legislators fill seats. Power shifts to legislators or executive branch lobbyists and unelected staff who have been around longer, he said.

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Term limits have also been associated with increased polarization. Faster turnover leads parties to recruit new office holders and those people tend to move closer to the extremes of either party, Masket said.

Studies have also found that lawmakers in their last term are doing less work, Masket said.

“Maybe people prefer it, but they write less bills. They appear less often,” he said.

Several failed attempts to locally establish term limits have come in recent years from members of the Baltimore City Council. Democratic Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer proposed a measure in 2018 to limit mayor, comptroller and council members to three terms. He failed to get out of the committee. Then-Council Bill Henry, now a Democratic City Comptroller, introduced a similar proposal in 2015 that didn’t garner enough support.

In addition to verifying signatures on removal and term limit petitions, local election officials must also confirm that the subject matter of a petition is permitted by law. Based on the opinion of a “legal authority,” officials must determine whether the enactment would be unconstitutional or otherwise prohibited by law. City attorney Jim Shea said the state attorney general’s office will provide that guidance to the city’s electoral board.

Baltimore Chief Electoral Officer Armstead Jones said this week staff are reviewing petition signatures and will announce the results on Monday.

The petitioners have until August 31 to seek judicial review of any unsuccessful charter amendment application.

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