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Baltimore deserves more than the mayor's resignation

Recent revelations that Mayor Catherine Pugh was paid nearly $700,000 for her self-published “Healthy Holly” children’s books — including by a quasi-public health system she oversaw and a large health provider that does business with the city — have raised a question: Where did all the money go? (Ulysses Muñoz / Baltimore Sun video)

I’ve known Catherine Pugh for most of the 10 years I’ve been in Baltimore. I first met her when she was a state senator and I was working to bring marriage equality to Maryland. She is a delightful person, friendly to a fault, passionate and polite, and she certainly is bold in what she wants. As with most Baltimoreans, it’s been painful for me to watch news unfold over the last two weeks regarding her role in the UMMS scandal, in which some board members, including Mayor Pugh, had lucrative business deals with the medical system. It’s been more so because it’s happening to someone I know.

I’m deliberately referring to this as the UMMS scandal because Mayor Pugh, who is on an indefinite leave of absence, should not be the center of the controversy; she is on its periphery. And though her position relative to the rest of the scandal does not excuse her actions, her company, Healthy Holly LLC, is very likely the least significant entity involved in this tangled mess of corruption and self-dealing. The political and business community in Baltimore is an interconnected array of interests in which money and access to other resources is funneled back and forth between elected officials and organizations operating in Baltimore. This system is the problem, not simply Mayor Pugh, whose egregious actions are only the first to be so definitively exposed.

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From 2011 through 2018, the University of Maryland Medical System had a deal to spend $500,000 for 100,000 copies of Mayor Catherine Pugh’s self-published “Healthy Holly” book series.

For as long as I’ve known the mayor, she’s failed to surround herself with an inner circle of confidants or advisers who are bold and honest with her. She doesn’t fully trust others, and she wants to hear only what she wants to hear. Her Healthy Holly LLC deals are indicative of who she is as a person, self-aggrandizing and trivial in her decision making. These qualities are also attractive to eager sycophants who would flatter her, convince her that she has done nothing wrong, and encourage her in ways that bring them closer to the resources she could dispense from the positions of power she formerly held.

As both mayor and a senator before, Ms. Pugh was a ready participant in a corrupt and unethical system that existed long before she assumed her first office. We are doing a disservice to our city if we put the blame squarely on her.

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Columbia businessman JP Grant said his company cut a check to then-Baltimore Mayoral nominee Catherine Pugh's book company for $100,000 in October 2016.

Take a dive into financial disclosures of almost every elected official in the state and you will find common names and businesses who have vested interests in who is holding what office. In Baltimore, that problem is more pervasive and exacerbated given the strong mayoral system that exists with limited checks and balances. This is not to say all are attempting to circumvent the law and curry favor, but the deceit and illegality of those who are have fundamentally created the foundation for the corruption and brokenness we see today.

We are the only city on the Eastern seaboard that is losing residents, has crime reaching staggering levels and a barely passable education system. We are not broken because of Healthy Holly, but rather because the system has failed and corruption has been allowed to grow, fester and take hold without adequate checks and balances. Our entire city government is culpable in how we got to this moment.

Former Baltimore mayor Sheila Dixon wrote on social media that her Facebook page was "hacked" after a post alluded to a potential 2020 run for mayor.

Given the stated intentions of Baltimore City Council President and current Ex-Officio Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young to not pursue the mayor’s office and the very high likelihood that Mayor Pugh will not be returning from her leave of absence, we need to determine now what we want from any person who announces she or he is running for mayor or any city office. We need to decide those things first and consider each based on what’s best for Baltimore at this moment and who is best to fix what broke us in the first place. Will that person support structural change in city governance? Will they abolish the Board of Estimates? Will they support charter changes that stagger the election of City Council members? Will they elevate the OIG to an independent position like a public advocate? Will they support publicly financed campaigns?

If we want to cure the disease in which institutional self-dealings take hold without notice, we need to move past the infatuation with Healthy Holly, LLC. That matter is now in the hands of the City Ethics Board and the Maryland Office of the State Prosecutor. We need to root out the rest of the sickness infecting our institutions — political offices, businesses, universities, non-profits and others — if we have any hope of a speedy civic recovery. The city deserves more than just a resignation; it deserves holistic change and reform.

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Matt Thorn, who lives with his husband in the Brooklyn neighborhood in District 10, is a principal in the consulting firm Whetstone Point, a political campaign veteran, and the former CEO of OutServe-SLDN. His email is matthew.f.thorn@gmail.com; Twitter: @matt_thorn.

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