With each insistence from Mayor Catherine Pugh and her advisers that she intends to come back to office when her health allows — despite a unanimous call for her to resign from the City Council and from the city’s House delegation because of the fallout from the Healthy Holly scandal — it becomes clearer that the lack of any means to remove a mayor from office short of a criminal conviction is a problem. But that’s not the only change to the charter council members should explore.
As it stands, Ms. Pugh could resume her duties as mayor at any time and face a council that is unified in its belief that she has brought shame onto the city with her six-figure deals to sell her self-published children’s books to people and entities that do business with the city or have significant interests in the power she has wielded as an elected official. That promises a year and a half of gridlock until a new mayor is sworn in after the 2020 election. Or she could remain on leave for that entire time — perhaps holding onto her office as a bargaining chip should the investigation by the state prosecutor’s office turn her ethical problems into legal ones — keeping the city in limbo (and on the hook for her $180,000 salary). Some have suggested that the state constitution allows for the governor to remove the mayor under certain circumstances, but reviews of case law and interviews with legal experts by The Sun now and during the scandal involving former Mayor Sheila Dixon found that the question is far from clear-cut. And in any case, Baltimore’s fate should not rest in the hands of the governor, whose interests may or may not align with those of city residents.
Some Maryland towns do allow for voters to petition an elected official to a recall election, but creating a mechanism for the council to remove a mayor, as it can for one of its own members or the city comptroller, seems the more sensible choice. But the precise mechanism of that power will need some consideration. Because the council is a unicameral legislature, a version of the impeachment-trial procedure employed in the federal and state constitutions isn’t possible. It would make sense to require a supermajority of some kind to ensure that removal only takes place in egregious circumstances and not just as a result of politics, but what should the threshold be? As it stands, the council can remove a comptroller by a majority vote, a council president by a two-thirds vote and a council member by a three-fourths vote.
Another consideration for the council is whether to set a time limit on a mayor’s leave of absence. Some counties (Anne Arundel and Howard, for instance) have charter provisions allowing for the removal of a county executive if he or she has been unable to perform the office's duties for 180 days or more, even absent any malfeasance.
While the council is re-evaluating the bounds of our strong mayor system, it should also consider reforms to the Board of Estimates and budget process. Currently, the mayor controls three of the five votes on the board, limiting its power as an appropriate check on municipal spending. Restructuring it to include just the mayor, comptroller and council president (much like the Board of Public Works on the state level) could make it more effective — but only if the board’s powers and duties were also reformed. Currently, the Board of Estimates plays a role in the budget process that the Board of Public Works does not, and removing the mayor’s control of the body without changing that would dilute fiscal responsibility rather than enhance it. Other functions of the board, for example reorganizing municipal contracts, should be returned to the mayor as well. The council should consider a more detailed reform of the board than it has in the past.
Councilman Eric Costello, who chairs the committee that handles charter amendments, has said that he wants to hold off on hearings for such reforms until the summer of 2020, arguing that they won’t go on the ballot until the following fall anyway and that the most important thing for the city right now is to focus on stability and continuity in the government. While we appreciate his sentiment, we think it’s important for the city’s leaders to demonstrate that they’re serious about reform and for voters to have a good idea of what changes may be in store for the city government’s structure before they vote in the all-important Democratic primary next April. We urge council members to begin that conversation with the public sooner rather than later.