New Annapolis mayor struggles in first months on job

New Annapolis Mayor Mike Pantelides is pictured in council chambers. A Republican in a Democrat-dominated city, has faced a rough road in his first four months in office.
New Annapolis Mayor Mike Pantelides is pictured in council chambers. A Republican in a Democrat-dominated city, has faced a rough road in his first four months in office. (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun)

Annapolis Mayor Mike Pantelides thought winning election as a Republican in a Democrat-dominated city would be hard. "The entire state was against me," he said.

Governing has been even tougher.


In the five months since his 59-vote victory, Pantelides has dodged an effort to cut his powers, fired several staff members and accepted resignations from several more. He's faced complaints about a lack of diversity in City Hall and endured a public flap after he was caught passing a profane note to an alderman.

On top of that, the mayor's cousin has been arrested and charged with attempted murder, and questions of propriety were raised when the acting city attorney met with the accused at the Annapolis police station.


The 30-year-old mayor has faced the sharpest barbs over a budget proposal that cuts positions and furloughs employees — a plan Alderman Kenneth Kirby called "ludicrous" and union officials say is a betrayal.

The upheaval has some residents feeling the town is rudderless, says Curtis DeStefano, president of the Murray Hill Residents Association.

"There have been so many high-level changes that the city is operating without support and direction," DeStefano said.

For his part, Pantelides is taking the criticism in stride. "There hasn't been a big screw-up I regret," he said.


When Pantelides — a newcomer to politics who previously worked in sales — defeated incumbent Democrat Josh Cohen in November, he was hailed by the GOP as a wunderkind.

On the campaign trail, he promised to cut government spending, reduce water bills and curb new development, drawing a contrast to Cohen, who advocated redevelopment along the City Dock waterfront and struggled to reopen the city-owned Market House.

Critics have included members of the African-American community, including a prominent minister and a former alderwoman who say the mayor has made no effort to improve diversity in key positions. They point to departures of African-Americans from city staff: former City Attorney Karen Hardwick, former mayoral aides Eugene Peterson and Kirby McKinney and Transportation Director Richard Newell.

"I've seen mayors come and go, and what I've learned is the mayors with no elected experience … are the ones who have the toughest time adjusting to political realities," said Carl Snowden, chairman of the Annapolis housing authority and head of the county's Caucus of African-American Leaders.

Pantelides says he's forced out several white employees, too, and notes that he has hired several women and a Hispanic liaison in his office.

"They're speaking of African-American diversity, not diversity as a whole," Pantelides said of critics.

The challenges were to be expected for a Republican mayor with a majority-Democratic council, some observers point out. "He was going to struggle given the composition of the council. He's not a magician," said Dan Nataf, director of the Center for the Study of Local Issues at Anne Arundel Community College. "It would take a political genius to figure out some way to both honor the campaign pledges and deal with a 7-2 Democratic majority on the council."

Joe Cluster, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party, says some criticism aimed at the mayor is fueled by sour grapes. Pantelides took away power from Democrats, who had a grip on the capital city, he said.

"He's going to have to walk on eggshells, because Democrats see him as a star of the Republican Party. They're going to take advantage of every stumble he has," Cluster said.

But critics suggest some of Pantelides' woes are of his own making. During a council session where diversity was being discussed, Democratic Alderman Ross Arnett prolonged discussion by asking a critic of the mayor to elaborate. The mayor passed Arnett a note: "Thanks for [expletive] me." A picture of the note was circulated — Arnett says not by him — and raced through local media and social media.

"It's between Ross Arnett and I, and we'll handle it man to man," Pantelides said.

Arnett, for his part, says simply, "Out of inexperience, he's just made decisions way too quickly."

Pantelides has struggled winning support for his choice for city attorney, Timothy Murnane, a local lawyer Pantelides met during the election. Murnane headed the campaign's legal oversight of ballot-counting in the days following the election, and has become a close adviser.

When Pantelides brought Murnane's confirmation to the council in December, aldermen postponed a vote, raising questions about his experience.

Murnane's fate may have become murkier after the arrest last month of the mayor's cousin, Savvas Andre Pantelides, on attempted first-degree murder charges in connection with a January shooting during an alleged robbery. Police confirm Murnane met with Savvas Pantelides at the police station after the arrest, and city phone records indicate Murnane also had three phone calls with the police chief the day Savvas Pantelides was arrested.

Pantelides insists Murnane wasn't there on city business.

"He was not Savvas' attorney, never had been and never will be," the mayor said, though he acknowledged: "Some people may have a bad perception. Looking in retrospect, he probably shouldn't have gone down there."

The lack of department heads also is troubling to some. DeStefano, whose Murray Hill neighborhood has been fighting a proposed Royal Farms store at downtown's City Dock, says Annapolis needs a planning director. The city is without one after Pantelides dismissed Jon Arason, who had 26 years with the city, in January.

"We need someone with experience in that position as soon as possible," DeStefano said.

The budget proposal, calling for layoffs of 13 employees, eliminating open positions and furloughs for remaining city workers, has also come under fire. The council ultimately must approve the budget. Furloughs would require union approval.

Kory Blake, an official with the AFSCME local that represents about 150 city employees, said the new mayor is "not only breaking the trust of city employees, but he's also cutting services to citizens of Annapolis and lowering the standard of living."

Blake said union members will offer the mayor alternative suggestions for cost-cutting. But he said they won't revisit their contract signed last year after 15 months of bargaining. The mayor's proposed layoffs range from lower-paid equipment operators to high-level planners and a deputy director of emergency management.

Pantelides said he understands unions want to preserve jobs. But he says few understand the city's financial troubles, including increases in costs for employee health insurance, workers' compensation claims, previously negotiated pay raises and paying off debt.

Still, Kirby, a Democrat, says he wonders who is advising the mayor. "At some point, he's got to realize they're not doing a very good job so far," he said.

Pantelides has little ammunition to sway the nine-member council. The Annapolis mayor has no veto power, and key staff appointments such as city manager and city attorney must be confirmed by the council.


"One of the things they have to learn is how to count to five," Snowden said of new mayors. "In order to get anything accomplished, you need five votes in the city."


Pantelides touts a small victory: A temporary reduction in parking meter rates in the winter, from $2 per hour to $1 per hour. He says getting that approved by the council was a triumph, "as small as some may say it is."

And he's trying to improve relations with African-American leaders. He met this week with representatives from the local NAACP, and Snowden said it went well.

Democratic Alderman Jared Littmann said he hopes Pantelides can settle into the job.

"I think he is working hard to do the best job that he can," Littmann said. "I hope to help him be successful. It's in everybody's best interest for him to be a successful mayor, regardless of his party affiliation."

Amanda Fegley, president of the Ward One Residents Association downtown, said she's taking a wait-and-see approach to the new mayor.

"I am very hopeful that all of the parties involved can reach a level of understanding where progress can be made," she said.


Annapolis departures

Since Mayor Mike Pantelides took office in December, there has been significant turnover at City Hall and within city agencies. The departures of City Attorney Karen Hardwick, mayoral aides Eugene Peterson and Kirby McKinney, and Transportation Director Richard Newell, who are African-American, has led to criticism Sabout lack of diversity.

Karen Hardwick, city attorney: dismissed.

Michael Mallinoff, city manager: dismissed.

Virginia Burke, assistant city manager: resigned.

Jon Arason, planning director: dismissed.

Richard Newell, transportation director: resigned.

Eugene Peterson, community relations specialist: dismissed.

Kirby McKinney, community relations specialist: dismissed.

Michelle LeFurge, special events coordinator: dismissed.

Gail Smith, director of human services and Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator: resigned