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Baltimore police commissioner pick's contract comes with higher salary, but more ways for a mayor to fire him

Baltimore’s spending board approved a 5-year contract for the incoming police commissioner Wednesday, backing a deal that gives him valuable perks and a much higher salary than his predecessors but also makes him easier to fire.

Michael Harrison, who Mayor Catherine Pugh selected to run the Police Department last month, would make $275,000 a year with raises of 3 percent each year. And his raises could be even larger if he meets goals to drive down crime, according to a copy of his contract the mayor’s office released after the Board of Estimates vote.

The deal also provides Harrison, who is set to begin Monday as acting commissioner, with a measure of protection should the City Council reject his nomination. It guarantees him a year’s pay if he’s voted down. Some council members said Wednesday that they were troubled by that provision.

The contract grants Harrison more generous severance terms than his most recent three predecessors who had contracts, should he be dismissed without cause. But at the same time, it greatly expands the grounds a mayor can invoke for removing him.

Pugh controls the spending board, which approved the contract without discussion.

“The contract is a good contract,” Pugh said in an interview. “I think that Michael Harrison is a great candidate for Baltimore city. I think all roads point in his direction.”

The salary is a big bump above what previous commissioners have been paid. Darryl De Sousa, the last Baltimore police commissioner with a contract, had an annual salary of $210,000. Harrison also will be collecting a six-figure pension as former chief of police in New Orleans.

Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, who chairs the spending board, said he thought the salary was justified, given Harrison’s experience and the difficulties the city Police Department faces.

“$275,000 is not that much money to pay someone to come here and try to make the changes we need in Baltimore city,” Young said. “My expectation is he will come in and — not that you can do it all in one day or one week — put strategies in place to reduce the violence.”

Harrison will take the helm at a department struggling to fight violent crime while also trying to implement civil rights reforms designed to stamp out discriminatory policing.

He’ll also be stepping into a department that has been without permanent leadership since May, when De Sousa quit after being charged with failing to file federal tax returns. Gary Tuggle was promoted to acting commissioner and has been serving in that role, but he withdrew from the competition for the permanent job and has not had a contract. Pugh nominated Fort Worth, Texas, Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald as the next commissioner, but he withdrew after his son suffered a medical emergency.

Harrison’s contract does not spell out what crime reduction goals he would have to meet to earn raises, saying only that his pay would be based on “attainment of objective crime-reduction metrics and subjective personal performance factors.”

But Pugh told reporters that she envisions them including recruitment goals — which new data show the department has struggled to meet — and driving down homicides.

“We’ve got to reduce numbers, we’ve got to get under 300,” said Pugh, referring to the city’s annual homicide count, which has been above 300 for several years in a row, including 309 last year.

“We’ve got to be hiring at the rate that we should be hiring,” she said. “We’ve got to make sure that we are meeting the goals of the police department. There will be strict goals set.”

Pugh is set to formally nominate Harrison to the council Monday, setting up a final vote by March 11.

Council members have said they want to vet Harrison closely and some questioned the guarantee of a payout should the council reject him.

Councilman Brandon Scott, the chairman of the Public Safety Committee, said he thought Harrison was qualified, but described that provision as a “lottery jackpot.”

“The mayor giving a contract that pays out over a quarter of a million dollars, regardless, if the nominee is confirmed sets a dangerous precedent that corrupts the confirmation process,” Scott said.

Councilman Zeke Cohen, a member of the committee that will weigh Harrison’s nomination, said he couldn’t think of any other job where a losing candidate gets paid.

“The council has an important role to play in this process and our vote should be final,” Cohen said.

Despite those concerns, there have been no indications of any opposition to Harrison, and Young said he expects the council to confirm him.

“We need a leader in place,” Young said.

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who sits with Cohen on the committee, had opposed Pugh’s plan of having Fitzgerald work in an acting capacity. She said waiting to install Fitzgerald would have given the council more freedom to vote to reject him, if its members had wanted to do so. But on Wednesday, she said the provision granting Harrison a paycheck even if he’s voted down ultimately won’t matter.

“That’s a moot portion of the contract,” she said. “He sounds good, and we’re ready for good.”

Harrison’s salary would make him the third-highest paid member of Pugh’s cabinet. School system CEO Sonja Santelises makes about $300,000, paid out of the school system budget, and Visit Baltimore CEO Al Hutchinson earns $312,000.

The contract includes several provisions that De Sousa and Harrison’s other two predecessors dating back to 2012 did not enjoy.

On top of relocation expenses, it provides Harrison a $3,000 a month housing allowance for a year or until his current home is sold. Previously commissioners only received moving expenses.

The contract also sets the terms for Harrison to build an executive team, allowing him to hire a chief of staff and as many as eight other senior commanders.

If Harrison is fired without cause, he would be paid the balance of the contract in bi-weekly installments, minus any income he earns from a new job. That could be more lucrative than the lump-sum deals his predecessors agreed to.

But the agreement also expands the grounds on which the mayor could fire Harrison without having to pay him out.

The last three commissioners with contracts could only be ousted for dereliction of duty, serious issues related to alcohol or drug use, or serious criminal charges. Harrison’s contract includes other grounds for termination, including violations of city policy and anything the city believes harms the Police Department’s reputation or “calls into question his moral character.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Kevin Rector contributed to this article.

iduncan@baltsun.com

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