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Baltimore mayor's hefty haul from 'Healthy Holly'

It’s no secret that Baltimore’s mayor has written a few books. Details are right there in her Maryland Manual bio, from when she was a legislator: “Author, ‘Mind Garden: Where Thoughts Grow’ (2005), and the ‘Healthy Holly’ children's book series.”

What most of us didn’t know, however, until Sun reporter Luke Broadwater revealed it Wednesday, is that her chief customer appears to be the University of Maryland Medical System, which has counted Ms. Pugh as a member of the board of directors since 2001 (despite a state law limiting such memberships to two consecutive, five year terms, I might add). The mayor has also overseen matters affecting the medical system as a state senator for years, most recently as a member of the Senate Finance Committee (2008-‘15) and chair of its Health Subcommittee (2013-‘16), which approves millions in state aid to UMMS.

While “Mind Garden,” a self-published book of poetry, isn’t exactly flying off the shelves (it was ranked 10,423,970 in books on Amazon), the Healthy Holly books, self-published in 2010, have become a solid salary supplement for Ms. Pugh. UMMS has bought 100,000 copies of the book since 2011 — at what the mayor described in a statement as “a modest cost of $5 each” — netting her roughly $100,000 in total profit, a representative from her office told me Thursday. (The breakdown: UMMS purchased 20,000 books to distribute to young children in city schools and day cares in 2011, 2013, 2015, 2017 and 2018, though the most recent order is still in production).

She was one of nine board members out of 29 who have lucrative — and ethically suspect — business contracts with UMMS, Mr. Broadwater reported. Legislation sponsored by state Sen. Jill P. Carter, a Baltimore Democrat, would ban board members from profiting from contracts with the hospitals they govern.

While such deals may not yet be illegal, that shouldn’t be the bar the mayor is trying to meet. It looks terrible to be taking money from an organization she wields power over — especially one that’s subsidized with tax dollars. The book sales may not influence the mayor’s governance in any way, but that won’t stop constituents and colleagues from wondering. And of all people, this mayor who so frequently implores media to “change the narrative” regarding our shared city should understand that perception is reality.

Even if UMMS somehow thought this series was the absolute best it could find to give away to kids to teach them healthy habits — and I’ve read three of the books; it’s doubtful — the mayor should have donated the books and written it off as charitable giving on her taxes instead of putting herself in a position to make a profit from a non-profit she oversees.

The books are hard to find. There’s one used copy of “Healthy Holly: Exercising is Fun” listed on Amazon for $199 with one review referring to Luke Broadwater’s Sun story about the perceived conflict of interest. A Sun reporter had copies of that book from earlier reporting, though, and two others: “Healthy Holly: Fruits Come in Colors like the Rainbow” and “Healthy Holly: A Healthy Start for Herbie.”

In the books, Holly and her family describe liking to walk, bike, swim and jump rope in various green spaces throughout some unnamed city, where rainbow colors are unfortunately out of order, lamp posts are alive and teacups dance with teapots (how very “Beauty and the Beast”). The books suggests physical skills children should master by certain ages (“By age 3 run and jump well”), recommends daily fruit intake for children and adults, and reinforces safe sleeping arrangements for infants: alone.

They are not the worst children’s books I’ve read. They are colorful, simple, oddly illustrated and largely unremarkable. They are also clearly not in demand by anyone other than UMMS. A Twitter handle listed for the books has one follower: the Sun reporter who had the copies I reviewed.

I wonder what a younger, more idealistic Catherine Pugh would say about this, the one who published “Mind Garden” in 2005 to “make people think about some of the issues we’re dealing with in our daily lives and the importance of each other as individuals,” as she told State Legislator Magazine.

Perhaps she should re-read it for some perspective. From the poem “Picture This” by Catherine E. Pugh:

“It’s not just about understanding what we must do,

It’s doing it with purpose and laboring in truth.

Don’t lead me in darkness while you stand in the light,

And tell me I’m wrong when you’re not doing right.”

Tricia Bishop is The Sun's deputy editorial page editor. Her column runs every other Friday. Her email is tricia.bishop@baltsun.com; Twitter: @triciabishop.

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