In a Pyrrhic victory for the Camden crew on Salisbury City Council, fellow Council member Laura Mitchell glumly announced she had fallen short of the required number of signatures needed to place the issue of their most recent City Charter change on the ballot. While she collected 2,327 signatures it was well short of her goal of 3,000 and the required 20 percent of registered city voters. Ironically, though, more voters signed the petition than voted in the election which placed Mitchell on City Council.
It seems to me, though, that there were valid reasons for bringing this question to a referendum. As I read the measure, it placed City Council in a position where they would be usurping some of the power reserved to the city’s executive. I’ll grant that Jim Ireton and I don’t see eye-to-eye very often and it’s my hope that a strong conservative candidate emerges for the next mayoral election in the spring of 2013. But in this case I think he was correct in opposing this change, since it essentially serves to weaken what was intended as a strong executive form of government similar to that of Wicomico County, the State of Maryland, and our very nation. In each instance, positions under the executive branch are selected by the executive but require the advice and consent of the legislative branch.
Instead, the city’s legislative branch has turned the neat trick of grabbing the power for itself via a Charter change which couldn’t be vetoed by the mayor (and certainly would have been, with Council unable to overturn the veto because that vote would have been a 3-2 tally in favor of overturn when a 4-1 margin is needed.) The public’s only recourse would have been to petition the effort to referendum, but it’s a task which hasn’t been completed in many years. You may remember there were petition drives to recall our previous Mayor and various City Council members which also met a similar fate.
It’s interesting to point out that Maryland only requires the signatures of three percent of the total number of voters who participated in the latest gubernatorial election to bring bills to referendum – a fact we learned thanks to the successful bid to halt the implementation of in-state tuition for illegal aliens. Given that parameter, had Salisbury played by those rules the Mitchell petition would have needed just 80 signatures, or three percent of the 2,647 votes cast in the 2009 mayoral election. (That was 21% turnout, by the way.)
Perhaps we need to revisit this 20 percent requirement since city voters seem to be a disinterested lot and needed change is hard to come by. I would suggest a better requirement be registered city voters who represent 5 percent of the city’s total population, or just about 1,500 signatures. Obviously this would make government by referendum a little easier to attain, but I think it would also create more turnout and hopefully a more informed electorate. It would also leave some degree of difficulty involved since collecting the signatures Laura did took dozens of volunteers, and I think that’s fair.
In the meantime, come November 29 we will likely see some drastic changes in how the city goes about its business. I wouldn’t be surprised if the current legal minds are let go and new ones who are more amenable to the Camden crew brought in. Whether that will be good for the city is anyone’s guess, but it will certainly make the Council majority feel better.