Grappling with the fallout from Mayor Catherine Pugh’s “Healthy Holly” book deals, the Baltimore City Council is set to consider changes to government ethics laws, limits on the power of the mayor and a new way to oust a sitting mayor.
The first round of legislation, sponsored by Councilman Ryan Dorsey, will be introduced at Monday evening’s council meeting.
Dorsey’s package, in the works before details of Pugh’s book sales were publicly known, includes measures that would ramp up financial oversight and disclosure requirements and protect whistleblowers. He said the legislation takes on added meaning amid the revelations of Pugh’s books deals, some with entities doing business before the city.
“This recent scandal is only the most recent and most egregious and most publicly understood manifestation of a system that has not been kept in check for a very long time,” Dorsey said, “and these bills aim to do but a part of bringing our system in check.”
Pugh has taken a leave of absence, citing the need to recover from a case of pneumonia, and it’s not known whether she broke any laws in collecting some $800,000 to distribute the healthy lifestyle books to children. But the political process that is now beginning in the City Council will play out alongside several reviews and investigations of her conduct.
Lester Davis, a spokesman for Acting Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, said Young supported the debate beginning in the City Council but wanted to ensure that the broader community is included in the process.
“It can’t be rushed because that would do a disservice to the citizens of the Baltimore,” Davis said. “We can’t be a in situation where we have legislators who want to rush this for the sake of showing they're doing work.”
After the UMMS payments were uncovered by The Baltimore Sun, Pugh amended several years of disclosure forms with the state, where she served as a state senator during the period in which the deals were being made, to acknowledge the income. Pugh disclosed her ownership of Healthy Holly LLC on her annual city financial disclosure forms. But the city code makes no mention of disclosing the sources of revenue for businesses that officials own.
The city’s ethics board voted to open an investigation into whether the sales violated the city’s rules and the Office of the State Prosecutor is also investigating. Young has asked the city’s lawyers to review recently awarded contracts, and the city’s inspector general is also reviewing contracts approved since Pugh took office.
Many of the ideas the council members plan to take up would require amendments to the city charter, which could not be put before the voters until the election in November 2020 and would not need approval from the council until the summer of that year.
“Knowing that next summer is the deadline for ballot measures, you really have an opportunity to spend some time,” Davis said.
Councilman Zeke Cohen said he and his colleagues have been prompted to look at how Baltimore's system of government might have played into the Healthy Holly controversy and that “everything is on the table.”
“When power is so heavily concentrated in one individual, that individual can in some instances become subject to corruption,” Cohen said. “A good government has checks and balances.”
The proposals to rein in the mayor — who holds a great deal of power compared with her peers in other cities — and make it easier to hold the office accountable are still being finalized, council members involved in the process said.
Councilman Bill Henry said he is considering a measure to shift the balance of power between the mayor and the council. Henry said he’d been working on the idea for several years but said after the Healthy Holly controversy “the negatives of an overly strong strong-mayor system have been more evident.”
That debate is not new.
In 2016, the council overwhelmingly approved a pair of charter amendments that would have dramatically weakened the mayor’s powers over contracts and the budget. One would have eliminated the mayor’s effective control of three of the five votes on the Board of Estimates, which approves major contracts. The other would have allowed the council to add spending to the city budget. Then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake vetoed both pieces of legislation.
A group of council members is currently also working on a charter amendment that would make it easier to remove a mayor from office. All 14 members of the council have called on Pugh to resign, but they lack the power to force her from office and Pugh’s spokesman has said she intends to return.
A provision in the state constitution to expel officials from office — created after former Mayor Sheila Dixon was found guilty of embezzling gift cards — kicks in only if they’re convicted of a crime.
Councilman Kristerfer Burnett said that amendment was still being drafted but that he was aiming to introduce it at the April 29 council meeting.
The first of Dorsey’s bills would require city agencies to more explicitly outline financial disclosure requirements, including for all new job postings; secure acknowledgement of those requirements from all new hires subject to them; and share the names of all employees who are subject to them with the city ethics board.
It would also require filers to disclose all directorships they hold, not just those at entities that do business with the city. Pugh mentioned her role as a UMMS board member on a disclosure filed when she was running for mayor, but not on those filed once she was in office.
Dorsey said he started working on making disclosure requirements more robust after former Police Commissioner Darryl De Sousa was charged federally last year with not filing his taxes. De Sousa pleaded guilty and was sentenced last month to 10 months in prison.
A second bill would move the ethics board — which is responsible for enforcing city rules regarding conflicts of interest and keeping financial disclosure records of city employees — from under the city Department of Legislative Reference to the inspector general’s office, which was granted independence by a charter amendment approved in November. Dorsey’s bill would also make the inspector general the board’s executive director.
The last of Dorsey’s three bills would prohibit city officials from retaliating against whistleblowers who reveal information they reasonably believe shows a crime, gross mismanagement, waste or abuse, or a substantial danger to public safety or health.
Inspector General Isabel Mercedes Cumming said Friday that she supports the whistleblower protection bill.
“Anything that will protect the citizens and employees of Baltimore city in terms of retaliation against whistleblowers is positive,” she said. “If they ask me to testify on behalf of that, I will be happy to.”
She said she took no position on the bill to move the ethics board under her purview, and already has her hands full, but would take on the added responsibility if the City Council gave it to her.
“I’m the city's watchdog. If that’s where they want it, that’s fine,” she said.
The new bills come after the council passed legislation to require lobbyists to more frequently disclose their activities and a measure bringing the city in line with state ethics laws passed by the General Assembly in 2017. That legislation included a provision that people who file city financial disclosures reveal any lobbying clients of their spouses and extended limits on lobbying by former elected officials.