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Baltimore’s lame duck mayor is making a $715,462 mistake | COMMENTARY

Baltimore Council President Brandon Scott and Baltimore Mayor Bernard "Jack" Young got into a squabble at Wednesday's Board of Estimates meeting over the mayor's plan to hire nine staff positions in Mr. Scott's office over his explicit objections. (AP Photo, File)
Baltimore Council President Brandon Scott and Baltimore Mayor Bernard "Jack" Young got into a squabble at Wednesday's Board of Estimates meeting over the mayor's plan to hire nine staff positions in Mr. Scott's office over his explicit objections. (AP Photo, File) (AP)

It’s not every day that a mayor gets into an ugly spat with a Baltimore City Council president because the former wants to beef up the staffing of the latter over his objections. If there’s a conflict at all, it usually works the other way, with council members seeking to expand their offices and the mayor exercising fiscal restraint. But that’s only a small part of what made this week’s dust-up between Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young and President Brandon Scott so absurd. To put it as delicately as possible, it’s a bad look when a mayor who lost his election bid so overwhelmingly as Mr. Young did just four months ago chooses to spend nearly three quarters of a million dollars of other people’s money over the objections of his likely successor.

Mr. Young has never even been elected mayor. He serves in his current position because the person voted into the job, Catherine Pugh, was forced out amid the “Healthy Holly” scandal last year and is now serving time in a federal prison on related fraud, conspiracy and tax charges. Mr. Young, who was then council president, was simply next in the line of succession. He lost the chance to keep the job in the Democratic primary, when Mr. Scott collected more than four times as many votes, making the current council president a near shoo-in for the position. After all, when was the last time a Democratic mayoral nominee wasn’t subsequently elected mayor? Here’s a hint: John F. Kennedy was still alive.

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We can only speculate about exactly what made Mayor Young decide that the next council president (likely Del. Nick Mosby, also based on primary results) had to have nine additional staff members earning an average of $79,496 apiece, but we suspect it has a lot to do with Question F. That’s the charter amendment city voters are facing this year to give the City Council greater authority over the budget. That reform (which we oppose, incidentally) requires the council members to have much greater expertise on city finances than they currently have, which will take additional staff. Even so, it’s exceedingly hard to see the urgency here. If voters approve Question F, the legislative branch will, at worst, continue to be dependent on the executive for its budget briefings in the months to come, perhaps even for another year — assuming Mr. Scott becomes mayor and doesn’t turn his back post-election on reforms that he himself has touted so strenuously. But this much we know for sure: The work of City Hall will not be significantly damaged if the matter waits until Dec. 8, when the new leadership is sworn into office. That’s just five and a half weeks away.

City government ought not be expanding its bureaucracy right now, anyway. The pandemic is posing all sorts of problems for local governments everywhere, including a drop in tax revenues to pay for these jobs. Should more than $715,000 in tax dollars be set aside for staff assistants and the like when Baltimore can’t even provide curbside recycling right now? Or how about reserving the money for the city’s public schools? Or to feed and house the jobless? Or perhaps just to maintain the city’s rainy day fund from which city officials withdrew $25 million just last month?

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There’s no doubt that Mr. Young has the power to take this action. He has controlling authority on the Board of Estimates, and got his 3-2 vote in favor of the hirings. But is this really what he wants to be his legacy? We have always found him to be a consensus builder. Why the sudden imperiousness? Even if the next council president needs the help and the charter amendment (and some other recent reforms) add to that burden, this is a fight best left for December. There’s a reason why an outgoing politician is described with the term, “lame duck.” It’s an acknowledgment that the person has lost influence and is just holding down the fort. The current mayor needs to respect not just the interests of his successor, but of his city.

What do you suppose Baltimore’s critics think when they read about such a nonsensical showdown by senior officials in a community that has far worse problems than council staffing including its unrelentingly high homicide count seemingly undiminished by COVID-19? They think Baltimore has become ungovernable, that’s what. Can’t we prove them wrong?

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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