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Quick and Dirty

Irresolute Intentions

When It Comes to Controversy, Baltimore City Council Members Abstain

Bill Henry

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 2/13/2008

There was some drama in the City Council chambers on Feb. 4, as freshman Councilman Bill Henry (D-4th District) introduced the first resolution of his council career, a relatively toothless measure that calls on the city's legislative delegation and Gov. Martin O'Malley to "end discrimination against same-sex couples" by passing Senate Bill 290 and House Bill 351--the state's gay-marriage bills. Henry had just two sponsors in support--Mary Pat Clarke (D-14th) and Robert Curran (D-3rd)--but he was pleased to see it marked "for immediate adoption" on the council's agenda. "It gave me hope," he said afterward.

That hope was short-lived. Henry introduced the measure with a formal speech that acknowledged some constituents might be "uncomfortable" with the idea of civil rights for gay people. He told fellow council members that "it's not my intention to embarrass any of you or to spot you in front of any of your constituents," and then compared the issue to the civil-rights struggle waged by African-Americans. Voting the resolution, Henry said, "is the right thing to do here and now."

He called for a suspension of the council rules to allow for immediate passage of the resolution. This is a routine action--the City Council suspends its rules dozens of times during any given meeting, particularly when it wants to pass a resolution. But not this time.

Council rules require that two-thirds, or 10 members, of the council vote to suspend the rules. "Abstain!" came the calls from Henry's colleagues when asked to vote for suspension.

Councilman Jack Young (D-12th) walked out of the chambers just before the vote (he insists he got back in time to abstain on the record, though his vote was apparently missed because it was not recorded). The city's Department of Legislative Reference later said that six members--James Kraft (D-1st), Rikki Spector (D-5th), Helen Holton (D-8th), Agnes Welch (D-9th), Council Vice President Edward Reisinger (D-10th) and Warren Branch (D-13th)--abstained, making it impossible to suspend the rules and pass the resolution. So in the end, the motion failed.

Failure to suspend the rules does not kill the resolution; it merely delays it, and the resolution is now assigned to the council's Judiciary and Legislative Investigations Committee.

"I would hope that the committee would assign a hearing in a timely fashion," Clarke said.

"The courts should solve that, not the city," Young said of the domestic partners/gay marriage controversy. "We already have in the city of Baltimore where same-sex couples get benefits and all that. If I'm a single guy, with a girlfriend for 15 years living with her, I can't get those benefits."

The next resolution on the agenda, 0014R--In Support of Federal Legislation--S.2554--the Civil Rights Act of 2008, was announced after Henry's resolution. According to the measure's sponsor, Holton, it would "serve to restore protections against discrimination." When Holton called for a suspension of the rules for passage of this resolution, Young seconded the motion. The council passed that civil-rights resolution unanimously.

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