A legislative package introduced tonight at City Hall would effectively weaken the mayor’s power over the budgeting process, while also giving council members freedom to impeach the mayor and greater ease to override a mayoral veto.
Yet another bill would create the new position of city administrator—a common municipal role in major cities that handles daily government operations—to take over some of the tasks currently handled by the mayor.
Lawmakers are proposing most of these reforms in response to Mayor Catherine Pugh’s infamous scandal of accepting nearly $800,000 in payments for her self-published “Healthy Holly” children’s books by politically connected entities while she was serving in office. FBI and IRS agents last week raided Pugh’s offices and homes (two of them), a job-training nonprofit she once ran and the apartment of a now-former aide, and served subpoenas at the University of Maryland Medical System offices and at her private attorney’s office.
Councilman Kristerfer Burnett (8th District) is behind the charter amendment to enable mayoral removal by at least three-fourths of the council, a check on power the council currently has for the comptroller and council president but not Baltimore’s top elected official.
To be eligible for the boot, the mayor would have to be guilty of “incompetency, misconduct in office, willful neglect of duty”—determined by the council Legislative Investigations Committee or the Office of the Inspector General—or of committing a felony or misdemeanor while in office, according to bill text shared with Baltimore Fishbowl.
As it stands, Baltimore’s charter allows for the removal of the mayor only if he or she is convicted of a crime, as Sheila Dixon was in 2009.
At a press conference outside City Hall Monday afternoon, Burnett called his proposed change “a necessary check and balance in a strong-mayor system.”
“The status quo is unacceptable,” he said of the existing inability for the council to act on mayoral misconduct. “We cannot have a scandal go on for years between elections all while giving a black eye to the reputation of Baltimore City.”
To be clear, Burnett’s amendment wouldn’t facilitate the immediate removal of Pugh, unless she stays in office and manages to be re-elected in 2020. The amendment would first need the approval of the city council. Then, it would head to a referendum vote in November of 2020, and require approval by a majority of voters. Thereafter, the council would still need to pass separate legislation creating a process for removal, including determining how many council hearings would take place and dictating the involvement of the inspector general in investigating a mayor.
Councilman Bill Henry (4th District) is sponsoring another amendment to change the strong-mayor aspect of city budgeting. Currently, only the mayor can propose and add to the budget during negotiations, while council members can merely cut. Henry’s legislation would allow for them to add money in, so long as they’re also making cuts elsewhere in the budget.
Henry previously sponsored such a change. It was approved by the council, only to be vetoed by then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake in 2016. Council members failed to override her veto at the time.
“My hope is that this time, this council… will not vote against their own self-interest and the interest of their constituents, and will vote to try to even that power dynamic between the mayor and the city council,” Henry said outside City Hall today.
Other charter amendments being introduced by Henry would quash the mayor’s power to make line-item vetoes in the budget, and reduce the threshold for overturning a mayoral veto from three-fourths of the council to two-thirds.
Councilman Brandon Scott (2nd District) is sponsoring yet another amendment to create the city administrator position. Today, he pointed that almost all large businesses have separation between the chief executive and top administrative posts–as do most local governments. It’s a more appropriate role to handle the “minutiae” of daily government operations than leaving that to a city mayor, he said.
“When you look to our surrounding counties and to most cities across the country, you won’t find the county executive or the mayor being both the chief executive and the chief administrator,” he said. “It’s time for Baltimore to do the same thing.”
In an interview afterward, Scott said the mayor would be able to hire the city administrator, but could not fire them without the approval of the city council. The charter would also have language requiring that it be a credentialed professional with expertise in government administration, rather than being open to a “political hire” with inadequate experience.
As with Burnett’s proposal, each of the charter amendments would take effect only with approval from voters in November 2020.
The proposals piggyback off of ethics-related legislation introduced by Councilman Ryan Dorsey (3rd District) last week to increase financial disclosure requirements within city agencies, bar officials from retaliating against whistleblowers and bring the city’s Ethics Board within the purview of the OIG.
While Dorsey’s and Scott’s bills were being drawn up before the “Healthy Holly” scandal unfolded, the proposals are flooding in as Pugh is facing pressure to resign. Baltimore’s entire city council, House delegation, the influential Greater Baltimore Committee and, as of last Thursday, Gov. Larry Hogan, have all called on Pugh to step down.
Pugh has been out on indefinite leave since April 1, with Bernard C. “Jack” Young filling in as ex officio mayor in her stead. She stepped aside several weeks after The Sun broke that she had accepted $500,000 in payments for 100,000 copies of her pro-fitness/healthy-eating children’s books from the University of Maryland Medical System, on which she had been serving as an unpaid board member since 2001.
Pugh was serving as a state senator at the time and sponsored bills to help hospitals, such as by making it more difficult for patients or their families to sue hospitals for large judgments for malpractice claims, and for telemedicine, among other proposals.
Word also came down that Pugh took more than $100,000 from Kaiser Permanente for copies of her books, for whom she then voted to approve a $48 million contract to insure Baltimore’s municipal employees. She took money from others as well, including Associated Black Charities, for whom she later voted to approve a contract to administer the $12 million Youth Fund.
Pugh initially called reporting into her “Healthy Holly” dealings a “witch hunt,” but later apologized during a morose press conference, calling it a “regrettable mistake.” She stayed on the job for several days more after that, but took her leave after news broke of her additional payments from Kaiser, ABC and others.
Pugh’s attorney, Steven Silverman, said after the raids last week that Pugh is still recovering from pneumonia, has now contracted bronchitis and isn’t quite “lucid” enough to make a decision on whether to resign.
This story has been updated.