Opinion: Baltimore City Council Should Listen to City Residents, Not Ignore Them

Baltimore
Screenshot of Baltimore City Council's virtual Taxpayers Night.

At the Baltimore City Council’s Taxpayer Night (recording) on May 27, Councilmember Eric Costello told residents the council would “listen to your comments,” to “help guide our decisions as we pass this year’s budget.” Taxpayer Night was the council’s only public forum where Baltimore residents could weigh in on Mayor Brandon Scott’s proposed budget — and our voices were ignored.

More than 50 Baltimore taxpayers, including both of us, prepared testimony about how we thought the city should spend our money. As the Baltimore Sun reported, all but two or three of those who testified asked the council to reduce the Baltimore Police Department’s all-time-high $550 million budget — a $28 million increase from last year.

Many of those who testified referenced their support for Organizing Black’s demands, which include cutting $100 million (18%) from the BPD budget; investing $30 million in a Community Wellness Trust Fund managed by a participatory budgeting process; investing $70 million in affordable housing, public education, universal health care, jobs, universal basic income and community programs; and removing police from responses to mental health distress, substance use, sex work, homelessness and other quality-of-life issues.

City residents cited a wide range of reasons for these requests, including direct lived experience with police, empirical (and common sense) evidence that increased spending on police does not and has not increased public safety, and the need for increased investment in building communities where everyone can live and thrive.

Advocates have been calling for these changes for years — a 2019 survey found that while policing is the No. 1 priority in the mayor’s budget, it’s the fifth-highest priority among city residents, behind youth programs, affordable housing, small business and neighborhood development, and community-based safety programs like Safe Streets.

Less than two weeks after Taxpayer Night, despite the overwhelming majority of testimony demanding that they invest more in communities and less in police, the city council unanimously passed the proposed budget without any amendments.

Councilmembers invited constituents to participate in a conversation about how the city spends our money, and then ignored us without any comment or explanation. Taxpayer Night was disappointing — but it was not a surprise when the entire budget process is designed to shut regular Baltimoreans out of decisions.

After the Board of Estimates’ Taxpayer Night in April, where almost all of the 90 people who testified asked for cuts to the BPD budget, the Baltimore Sun Editorial Board dismissed their testimony as “clearly an organized effort.” City Council President Nick Mosby was similarly dismissive when he complained that his “Security Deposit Alternatives” bill was vetoed because of the “outsized impact of the vocal advocacy class,” referring to housing advocates and community members who uniformly rejected the bill as predatory.

As long as political leaders and the media alternately ignore and dismiss those who actively participate in the political process, there is little hope to increase civic engagement.

Only when leaders are truly and transparently accountable to Baltimore residents will people feel invested in the process by which decisions are made. Real accountability will lead to more engagement, higher voting rates and, ultimately, policies that reflect communities’ priorities.

Accountability must start with a budget process that is responsive to Baltimore City residents.

Cities all over the country use participatory budgeting processes in which residents’ priorities matter. Participatory budgeting is a process where community members directly decide how to spend part (or all) of a public budget. There are more than 3,000 participatory budgeting projects/processes around the world.

The process deepens democracy and would allow for residents to have a real say in how our city’s budget dollars are spent. It would allow for Baltimoreans to envision what public safety without increased police presence or surveillance tools looks like for us.

Going forward, our elected leaders must be more responsive and accountable, and must meaningfully engage with their constituents on the policies that govern our lives.

Baltimoreans deserve a real say in how the city spends our money.

–ROB FERRELL AND DAN RICHMAN

The writers are, respectively, a senior organizer with Organizing Black and a community leader with Jews United for Justice. Ferrell may be reached at [email protected]. Richman may be reached at [email protected].