What now? Budget talks, investigations loom as Pugh refuses to resign

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Photo by Christopher Sessums, via Flickr

With Catherine Pugh refusing to bow to city and state legislators‘ calls for her to resign as mayor, council members are left with few options other than to move on, do their jobs and attempt to restore public trust in the city’s leaders.

“For me, it’s real simple,” Councilman Brandon Scott (2nd District) said. “The council as a unified body has spoken and we’ve given our piece on what we think should happen. And now we’ll continue to focus on the work.”

There’s little they can do at this point to get their way, save for pressure the mayor to heed their calls.

The city charter lays out processes for removing a council member or the comptroller from office, but not the mayor. Only if the city’s top executive is found guilty of a crime can he or she be removed from office–and that’s only under order from Maryland’s governor, per the state constitution: “The mayor shall, on a conviction in a court of law; of willful neglect of duty, or misbehavior in office, be removed from office from the governor of the state.”

City lawmakers are exploring ways to change that. Amid the hysteria of Sine Die and council members and Pugh clashing on Monday, Councilman Ryan Dorsey (3rd District) nudged state lawmakers and the attorney general’s office to take action:

Councilman Kristerfer Burnett (8th District) confirmed to Baltimore Fishbowl have been talks among council members about drafting an ordinance to let voters decide via referendum to let the public remove an elected official in a recall vote. But even if the measure were to be introduced and passed this year, voters wouldn’t actually get to move on it until 2020.

And, he said, council members shouldn’t rush to draft that bill, anyway. “We should not have knee-jerk reactions. We should have well-thought-out plans.”

So, city lawmakers will need to sit and wait for Pugh’s next move. “There is no other avenue right now,” Scott said.

Amid the stalemate, their first goal is to restore public trust in city government. Bernard C. “Jack” Young, president of the Baltimore City Council since 2010, has replaced Pugh as acting mayor in her absence, and Sharon Green Middleton, formerly vice president of the council, is now filling in as council president.

Members have given them their full support, and in his first week as ex officio mayor, Young has laid out an agenda prioritizing continued violence reduction, improving roads, cleaning up trash and addressing blight and vacants, among other issues affecting the city daily.

Perhaps the most important order of business looming over City Hall this spring is negotiating the budget for fiscal 2020. Pugh’s office has already presented its preliminary $2.9 billion operating plan to the Board of Estimates. Taxpayers’ Night is set for tonight at the War Memorial, where local residents can offer feedback to the city’s spending board (now led by Young, not Pugh) about what they need.

Per a city schedule, the Board of Estimates is set to hold another hearing on the budget this Thursday morning, and thereafter will release an executive summary and details in early May. There will be council hearings and another Taxpayers’ Night at City Hall, ahead of to the council’s vote of approval sometime during the week of June 17.

That’s more than two months out, and at this point it’s unclear when (or whether) Pugh will return from her recovery and absence amid her ongoing scandal. Council members would prefer to work with Young. By law, only the mayor can direct or redirect funds amid negotiations in the city budget, while the council is entrusted with the ability to cut, but not add money.

If Pugh does return, she’ll have to work with the same council members who’ve called for her seat en masse.

“It’d be incredibly awkward, at a minimum,” Burnett said.

It would happen just as state prosecutors and the city’s Ethics Board are probing Pugh’s business dealings with Healthy Holly LLC, the company she created to take payments for her self-published children’s book series.

“It’s gonna be extremely hard for this mayor to shepherd a budget through the council with all this stuff going on,” Scott said.

Councilman Eric Costello (11th District) has even asserted that with those and other investigations happening, “It will be impossible for Mayor Pugh to govern effectively.”

Reporters have uncovered that Pugh took around $800,000 in known payments from hospitals, health care companies, a businessman behind a contracting firm and other organizations. A number of those wound up having contracts approved by Pugh as the head of the Board of Estimates.

Amid the fallout from the $500,000 she received from the University of Maryland Medical System, Pugh did say she was sorry for it all. Reports of nearly $300,000 in additional payments surfaced the following week.

Burnett suggested Pugh’s involvement in the budget process could sow mistrust among constituents as she’s being investigated for unethical political behavior.

“The budget is the most important policy document that we pass every year,” he said. “We need to know that when we pass that, that we have trust from the voters, from the citizens, that everything’s the way it should be.”

As lawmakers move forward, council members are chalking up the stalemate–and its underlying scandal–as a distraction.

“There’s plenty of stuff that we could be working on and need to refocus,” Burnett said.

“The work goes on for us,” Scott said. “We will not be pulled into some continuing circus.”

Ethan McLeod
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