Members of the Baltimore City Council heard a barrage of concern, frustration and outright opposition to the mayor’s selection of Joel Fitzgerald as police commissioner when the public had its first chance to weigh in on his nomination Saturday.
Dozens of residents filed up to the microphone in the City Hall council chambers to testify before the council’s executive appointments committee. They urged council members to, at a minimum, subject Fitzgerald to more scrutiny. Some suggested rejecting the nomination and forcing the mayor to start the selection process over.
Business owner Beth Hawks testified about the violence she sees in her community and said she thought Fitzgerald, the police chief in Fort Worth, Texas, would be a “disaster.”
“I beg you please do not confirm Joel Fitzgerald,” Hawks said.
Speakers said they had concerns about Fitzgerald’s handling of a brutality case in Fort Worth and the overstated accomplishments on his resume. Others criticized the secrecy of the hiring process and Fitzgerald’s seeming reluctance to share information with council members.
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund, a civil rights organization, called on Mayor Catherine Pugh to withdraw Fitzgerald’s nomination, pointing to those same concerns in a letter sent to council members Saturday.
Fitzgerald did not attend the hearing.
Robert Stokes, chairman of the committee that held the hearing, said Fitzgerald had agreed to come but had to cancel because his son suffered a medical emergency. Senior members of the mayor’s team watched the proceedings in the council chambers.
Stokes characterized the public testimony as “very negative” and said it was unclear whether Fitzgerald’s own testimony could overcome it. Stokes said he hadn’t made his mind up on which way he would vote but based on what he’d heard so far, “it’s not good.”
Councilman Zeke Cohen, one of five committee members, said he would vote “no” on Fitzgerald. Cohen said that could change if there were meaningful opportunities for the public to get to know him.
“Our community has some deep concerns about this nominee,” Cohen said. “He needs to be here.”
Fitzgerald has opted to continue in his job in Fort Worth and has spent little time in Baltimore since being nominated in November. Before his son’s emergency, this weekend was to be a critical one for Fitzgerald, with community meetings. Fitzgerald was scheduled to be interviewed publicly before the council on Monday evening, which Stokes confirmed had been canceled.
Councilman Kristerfer Burnett, another committee member, said he wouldn’t make up his mind about Fitzgerald until the nomination process had played out, but said he shared the concerns the public raised Saturday.
“There hasn’t been much positive come out about his background and tenure in other cities,” Burnett said.
It’s not clear what the next steps for Fitzgerald’s confirmation will be. The committee was expected to vote in the coming week, with a final vote of the whole council on Jan. 14. The council must vote at its Jan. 28 meeting or Fitzgerald’s nomination will automatically be confirmed.
Mary Pat Clarke, a member of the committee, said Fitzgerald had a lot of work to do to build relationships, but the deadline “is looming,” despite Fitzgerald’s family crisis.
“Let’s take a deep breath and see where we are next week,” she said.
Karen Stokes, the mayor’s lead lobbyist and one of the aides who attended the hearing, declined to comment on the testimony.
“It sort of speaks for itself, I think,” she said.
Former state’s attorney candidate Thiru Vignarajah told council members that Fitzgerald made a mistake staying in Texas and “squandered an opportunity to meet community and faith leaders, learn neighborhoods, to allay concerns.”
The council members got a sense of what those who know and like Fitzgerald would say when retired Philadelphia police officer Anthony Floyd Jr. testified. Floyd said he had read about the hearing in the newspaper that morning and drove from Delaware to attend.
Floyd said that given his extensive experience in Philadelphia as a narcotics officer, Fitzgerald was “profoundly qualified.”
"He knows the number one problem in any major city in the United States is drugs,” he said. “There’s a direct nexus between drugs and what? Guns.”
But in the first two hours of public comments Saturday before the committee broke for part of the afternoon, just one speaker from Baltimore suggested the council approve Fitzgerald’s nomination.
Retired business owner Glord McGuire said Fitzgerald ought to be given a chance.
“Hopefully he comes, we have open arms and we can support him as much as we can,” McGuire said.
Stokes, the committee chairman, said he counted 51 witnesses and said just three supported Fitzgerald.
The dozens of others expressed their concerns and opposition, with many calling for a commissioner with a track record in Baltimore. One proposed installing a civilian to the job. Another suggested the position be elected.
Machine operator William Washington urged the council to reset the process of finding a commissioner.
“Start a process where public input plays a role so the community has buy in, has a stake,” Washington said.