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Baltimore City Council calls on Mayor Pugh to resign; she says she intends to return

The Baltimore City Council on Monday urged Mayor Catherine Pugh to resign. But within hours of the council issuing its extraordinary call, Pugh responded by saying she “fully intends” to return once her health improves.

The 14 council members sent a two-sentence letter to Pugh that was released at 7 a.m. urging her to step down. They sent copies to Acting Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, City Solicitor Andre Davis, Pugh’s chief of staff Bruce Williams, and Baltimore’s senators and delegates in the General Assembly.

“The entire membership of the Baltimore City Council believes that it is not in the best interest of the City of Baltimore for you to continue to serve as Mayor,” the council members wrote to Pugh. “We urge you to tender your resignation, effective immediately.”

The letter comes as Pugh has taken a leave of absence as mayor amid an unfolding scandal over her sales of her “Healthy Holly” children’s books to entities that have business dealings with the city. The state prosecutor has opened an investigation into the book sales.

Shortly before noon Monday, Pugh’s office issued a response saying the leave was for health reasons and that she plans to return to her duties as mayor.

“Mayor Pugh has taken a leave to focus on recovering from pneumonia and regaining her health,” Pugh’s office said in a statement. “She fully intends to resume the duties of her office and continuing her work on behalf of the people and the City of Baltimore.”

In an interview with The Baltimore Sun on Monday, Young said he was not asked to sign the letter and that he would not have done so because it would appear to serve his own interests if he wanted to remain mayor — a job he repeatedly has said he does not want to hold beyond an interim period.

But Young said the council’s “unprecedented” call for a mayor’s resignation will make it difficult for Pugh to return once her illness improves and her doctor clears her to come back.

Complete coverage: Mayor Catherine Pugh's Healthy Holly scandal »

“Her ability to govern would be very difficult,” Young said. “Let’s face it: How would she get anything done?”

The acting mayor said Pugh called him Monday morning and told him she intends to return to City Hall.

“She’s still the mayor until she comes back or she resigns,” he said.

City officials said a council has never asked a mayor to resign in recent history. Young, a 21-year veteran of City Hall, said he could not remember such a request, but that he respects the council’s right to ask Pugh to step down.

Signing the letter were: Council members Zeke Cohen, Brandon M. Scott, Ryan Dorsey, Bill Henry, Isaac "Yitzy" Schleifer, Sharon Green Middleton, Leon F. Pinkett III, Kristerfer Burnett, John T. Bullock, Edward Reisinger, Eric Costello, Robert Stokes Sr., Shannon Sneed and Mary Pat Clarke. That’s every member of the council except for Young.

Pugh announced April 1 that she was taking an indefinite leave of absence to recover from a bout of pneumonia for which she was hospitalized for five days. She continues to receive her mayoral pay of $185,000 a year. But Pugh’s spokesman said Saturday that she intended to return once her health has sufficiently improved.

The idea for the letter came together quickly after The Sun’s report Saturday evening on Pugh’s intention to come back, council members said.

Burnett said he’s barely been able to go out in public without being asked about Pugh. He said he felt the council had to step in to try to end the distraction.

“My personal opinion is that it was important that we take swift action to have a unified call,” he said. “I still very much believe in due process, and that investigations should be fully completed, but at the same time this has become a complete distraction from the work.”

Scott said he helped coordinate the letter, placing calls to his colleagues, but underscored that it was a collective effort.

“This is not something that could have happened without the entire council wanting it to happen,” Scott said.

Burnett said it was important for the council to act quickly and decisively. On Sunday, council members went to Costello’s office at City Hall to review the letter and sign their names. When Clarke arrived about 5 p.m., Costello, Middleton and Stokes had already signed their names. She became the fourth.

“We know we do not have the power to act on our recommendation,” Clarke said. “But we hope, as she's recovering from her pneumonia, that she will understand how disruptive and hurtful this tsunami of discoveries has become for the city itself and for city government.”

Costello posted a statement on Facebook saying: “The myriad of investigations underway into the various business dealings involving the Mayor raise significant ethical and legal issues. It will be impossible for Mayor Pugh to govern effectively. Therefore, I have joined all of my colleagues today in asking for the Mayor’s immediate resignation.” He declined to comment further for this article.

Forcing a mayor from office is tricky and perhaps not possible without a criminal conviction. Dorsey said last week that the city’s charter clearly spells out how to remove a member of the council or the comptroller, but “there’s no way for the council to remove a mayor.”

Dorsey said the Maryland General Assembly could amend the state constitution or the city charter, opening an alternative avenue to removing a mayor.

“Dear General Assembly, I've noticed you have about 15 1/2 more lawmaking hours and retain the power to amend our charter as well as the Constitution,” Dorsey wrote in a tweet Monday.

Monday evening, state delegates representing Baltimore in Annapolis held a news conference in the State House to join the council’s call for Pugh to go.

Del. Cheryl Glenn, who chairs the city’s House delegation, said the delegation wants Pugh to reconsider her plans to return as mayor.

“We do not believe that’s in the best interest for the city of Baltimore and the progress that we need to continue to make collectively,” Glenn said, flanked by most of the city’s delegates. “Once the City Council — who has to work with the mayor, day in and day out — unanimously came together and made a decision, we thought that we needed to stand in solidarity with them.”

Gov. Larry Hogan said calls for resignation from the City Council and Baltimore delegates mark a “turning point for the mayor.”

“Obviously the continuing saga has gotten worse every day and it’s gotten to the point where city leaders are taking a much stronger position,” Hogan said. “I think that’s the way it should be dealt with. I think it should get to the point where she resigns. The city dealing with this issue and calling on her to do so is appropriate.”

Pugh and the University of Maryland Medical System have been under fire since The Sun reported last month that nine of its board members, including Pugh, had deals benefiting their private companies with the hospital network they were tasked with overseeing.

Three board members, including Pugh, resigned from the board, while four others were placed on leave. The medical system’s CEO has also been placed on leave.

The hospital network paid Pugh $500,000 to produce 100,000 self-published “Healthy Holly” books to send to the Baltimore school system, but the mayor has acknowledged that she didn’t complete thousands of them. School officials have called the books they did receive “unsolicited” and say 8,700 copies are sitting unread in a warehouse.

At the same time UMMS was paying her for books, Pugh — who was a state senator before becoming mayor in 2016 — sponsored dozens of bills affecting hospitals in Maryland, including eight failed attempts at legislation that would have made it harder for aggrieved patients to successfully sue hospitals and doctors for large judgments via medical malpractice claims.

Pugh also did not list operating her Healthy Holly LLC business on state ethics forms until The Sun questioned her; she filed seven years of amended forms last month. On other state forms, Pugh listed her Healthy Holly company’s address as being her district Senate office paid for by taxpayers.

Health insurer Kaiser Permanente and Associated Black Charities said last week that they also bought roughly 30,000 copies of Pugh’s books, paying her a total of nearly $200,000. Pugh voted in 2017 to approve a $48 million contract for Kaiser Permanente to provide insurance to city employees. Associated Black Charities has a deal with the city to manage a $13 million youth fund.

Columbia businessman J.P. Grant said Wednesday that his company cut a check for $100,000 to Pugh’s Healthy Holly LLC in October 2016. He said he received a copy of one book but no documentation of how his money would be used. His Grant Capital Management has financed millions of dollars in deals for state and city agencies in recent years.

Dorsey said that in issuing its letter, the council was “doing what it knows is right.”

“It’s not a power or risk assessment,” he said. “It’s that we know, as the vast majority of the public inside and outside of Baltimore knows, that this mayor can be of no service to Baltimore City.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

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