Catherine Pugh is no longer the mayor of Baltimore, and that seems to already make us a better city.
But this is no time for self-congratulation among members of the media. I’ve been seeing letters to the editor congratulating the media, and self-congratulatory talk on local radio, for the role of media in exposing Pugh.
We still have a long, long way to go to get real reform in this deeply troubled city. We have some young City Council members who have risen up in opposition to the corruption at City Hall, and that’s a very good start. We have some widespread revulsion among citizens at the craven way Pugh lined her pockets to the tune of at least $800,000.
That helps, too, on the road to reform.
But even in a city the size of Baltimore, media is not monolithic; there are many parts. And a lot of those parts had nothing to do with exposing the sins of Pugh.
Let’s be honest, The Sun did the heavy lifting here, dating from the first story by Luke Broadwater about Pugh’s $500,000 from the University of Maryland Medical System. And that was followed by a fusillade of 30 or so more news stories and opinion pieces by The Sun.
To be sure, Baltimore Brew also did some hard punching against the Pugh administration from day one. But too many in the TV news business took the handouts, stood in front of City Hall for the live shots and told viewers essentially what the handout told them.
We need to be better than that if we want real change. We still have a mayor in Bernard C. “Jack” Young who seems to like doing business behind closed doors as much as Pugh.
The Baltimore Brew reported Young telling Pugh at a community meeting in 2017, “The more we can keep the news media out of our business, the better we can run this city.”
Lester Davis, a spokesman for Young, confirmed the accuracy on that quote in response to questions from me. But he insisted it was out of context in that Young was referring to “petty squabbles among elected officials,” not the business of governing.
“He knows the importance of reporting to the fabric of democracy,” Davis said.
I hope so, but I am far from ready to take Davis’ word for that after Young’s behavior on the Monday night of the uprising in 2015 when he tried to fault the media for not reporting what he called “the great things that are going on in the city.”
“I'm heartbroken and disturbed by the way the media is focusing on the negativity of this city and not the great things that are going on in the city," he said standing alongside then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. "We have young people who are out there protesting peacefully, but you're not focusing on them. You're focusing on those that are burning buildings and rioting through the streets of Baltimore. Show the positive people who are trying to stop them from doing this."
As I wrote at that time, this on a night when high school students “clashed with” police in the streets around Mondawmin Mall and 144 fires burned as the world looked on.
And, let the record show that the week before, local and national media had been covering peaceful protests and celebrating both the right to protest and the efforts of those preaching and practicing nonviolence. Brooke Baldwin, for one, anchored several of her CNN shows from Baltimore days before any violence broke out.
I’m sorry, I am not ready to blindly accept that Young has suddenly changed his thinking on the press and open government. Look how unresponsive he has been in recent days on the firings at City Hall. And spare me the “personnel matters” dodge when hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer funded payroll to top Pugh aides are suddenly in play. After Pugh’s egregious money gouging, citizens deserve more — much more.
Even today’s announcement of Pugh’s resignation had the feeling of huge civic matters being settled behind closed doors with Steven Silverman, Pugh’s attorney, announcing it with Pugh nowhere to be seen. We need an end to a few powerful people deciding our fate with little or no explanation.
On Jan. 2, when Pugh was trying to ram through Joel Fitzgerald as the new police commissioner even though others involved in the selection process reportedly wanted Michael Harrison for the job, I wrote a column headlined “Let’s dare to be an unlovable press … .”
Let’s double down on that sentiment in this moment when reform seems more possible than at any time in the 30 years I have lived in the city. Let’s serve notice to Young and City Solicitor Andre Davis and anyone else who worked closely with Pugh that the days of doing the city of Baltimore’s business in secret are done. Citizens here have suffered too much not to have more open government and accountability from their leaders.
When we help get some of that for the people of this beleaguered city, then we in the press can maybe celebrate a little.