A majority of Baltimore City Council members and Comptroller Bill Henry endorsed sheriff candidate Sam Cogen on Wednesday, upping the ante in the first serious electoral challenge three-decade incumbent John Anderson has faced in years.
Nine members of the council — John Bullock, Kristerfer Burnett, Zeke Cohen, Mark Conway, Eric Costello, Ryan Dorsey, Antonio Glover, Odette Ramos and Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer — are backing Cogen, a former deputy under Anderson who is now seeking to unseat him.
Henry and several council members who appeared at a Wednesday news conference with Cogen in front of Baltimore City Hall, said Cogen, a Democrat, would modernize the sheriff’s office while “humanizing” the city’s eviction process, which is run by the sheriff.
The group endorsement comes amid growing City Council criticism of Anderson, which came to a head during a budget hearing two weeks ago. Appearing before the council for the first time in several years, Anderson sparred with members about his policy for posting eviction notices, arguing he and his staff are not bound by an opinion from the Maryland attorney general.
Anderson’s staff places eviction notices on shared or exterior doors to apartment buildings when deputies find the doors to be locked. A 2001 opinion from then Attorney General Joseph Curran calls for notices to be placed on the property being repossessed, specifically the individual apartment, absent “extraordinary circumstances.”
The tense hearing was actually the sheriff’s office’s second before the City Council. The group postponed the first in early June after Anderson failed to attend.
The dispute culminated with a $500,000 cut to the sheriff’s office budget, narrowly approved by the City Council in late June. A subsequent piece of legislation introduced by Ramos calls for the office to better coordinate with landlords on evictions, to check the rental licensing statuses of landlords and to share eviction dates with renters who call the sheriff’s office.
When the amendment was passed, some dissenting council members accused their colleagues of making the monetary cut for political purposes.
“This floor amendment reeks of political posturing,” Councilwoman Danielle McCray said at the time.
Of the nine council members endorsing Cogen on Wednesday, six also voted in favor of cutting the sheriff’s office budget. The council has 15 members.
Reached Wednesday, Anderson’s staff didn’t address Wednesday’s endorsements, instead reissuing a past statement calling the budget cuts “alarming and very concerning.”
“This move will have a tremendous impact on the operational support services currently provided to the Baltimore Police Department Patrol Services by the Baltimore City Sheriff’s Office, support provided for Baltimore City Special Events, service of warrants, and planning and implementation for body worn cameras,” Anderson said.
Ramos, the budget amendment’s sponsor and a Cogen supporter, acknowledged the perception the two actions may create. Council wanted to send a message to all future sheriffs in the city, she said, not just Anderson.
“I know that’s what it looks like, but we’re going to hold Sam to the same account,” she said.
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Ramos argued the budget is one of the few areas where City Council has control over the sheriff’s office, which is governed by the state but funded by the city.
Cogen has pledged to reform the city’s eviction process if elected. Tenants being evicted should be surveyed by the sheriff’s office to see if they need to be connected to various social services, Cogen said. He said he would begin notifying the school system about any children who have been ousted from their homes due to evictions so that more direct services can be provided.
Cogen said he also would crack down on landlords who are not properly licensed to rent their properties.
Costello, who opposed the cut to the sheriff’s budget, noted it was Cogen who frequently presented the office’s budget to the City Council in years past, not Anderson.
“The fact that we didn’t have the sheriff show up says something about the office,” Costello said. “When I think about Sam, I think about someone who wants to come in front of the council, wants to be held accountable for the progress in that office.”
Conway, who backed the budget amendment and endorsed Cogen, said he hopes to see more coordination among public safety agencies if Cogen is elected. Conway chairs City Council’s Public Safety and Government Operations Committee.
City residents routinely hear about a shortage of police officers in Baltimore, and the sheriff’s office has an opportunity to help with reducing crime in the city, he said.