A Baltimore City Council committee’s vote to reject the nomination of Faith Leach for city administrator may not be the final word from the council, Mayor Brandon Scott said Friday as he announced an agreement with Council President Nick Mosby to move forward with Leach’s confirmation.
Leach, who was deputy mayor of equity, health and human services before Scott tapped her for city administrator in January, was rejected by a council committee vote Thursday during a confirmation hearing that exploded into shouts over council procedure.
After more than two hours of testimony and questioning by council members that was largely favorable toward Leach, the Rules and Legislative Oversight Committee voted 4-2 against her appointment, citing concerns about the city administrator’s office structure and doubts about the necessity of the position.
Stunned council members who supported Leach blasted their fellow committee members for what they deemed a political maneuver in violation of council rules.
Democratic Councilman James Torrence said the vote should be invalidated because Councilman Eric Costello, also a Democrat, appeared at the hearing virtually and should not have been permitted to vote.
“Tonight you have failed the citizens of Baltimore. We overwhelmingly voted for the office of the city administrator,” said a visibly upset Torrence. “You have violated the trust of this chamber and the people of Baltimore.”
The councilman walked out of council chambers in protest as the vote was completed.
On Friday, Scott held a brief news conference in front of City Hall to address the committee vote. Flanked by dozens of city officials, Leach’s supporters and three council members, the Democratic mayor defended Leach’s resume and character.
“This phenomenal Black woman is overqualified to be the city administrator of Baltimore City,” he said, citing Leach’s work with squeegee workers and homeless residents.
Scott said he spoke Thursday evening with Mosby following the vote and was “assured” the Democratic council president would “work in partnership to make sure that Miss Leach will be confirmed.”
“I look forward to seeing that partnership play out, and we can make that take place as quickly as possible because he agrees that she is a phenomenal public servant,” Scott said before ending the news conference abruptly and not taking questions.
Mosby’s spokeswoman, Monica Lewis, said the council president, who did not attend the news conference or the confirmation hearing, “remains committed” to working with the administration.
“He has been in communication with Mayor Scott regarding the city administrative officer role and looks forward to more conversations around the confirmation process for Ms. Leach,” Lewis said.
Democratic Councilwoman Odette Ramos, one of two members of the committee who voted for Leach, said the committee’s unfavorable report will appear on the City Council’s agenda Monday for a vote by the full group.
“We’ll see,” she said when asked if there are enough votes from the 15-member body to support Leach’s nomination. Eight members are needed to confirm an appointment.
The clash is the latest to erupt between the City Council and the mayor during what has been a rocky start to 2023. Scott’s hasty push to approve a multimillion deal with Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. to take over maintenance of the city’s conduit system for four years drew ire from much of the council, which convened an investigative committee to look into it. Scott forced an unorthodox vote of the Board of Estimates to approve the agreement, sparking public rebuke from several council members.
The administration and the council also have sparred over the details of the city’s takeover of control of its police department from the state. Scott’s team has pushed to slow implementation and most recently proposed a clause limiting the amount of power the council would assume over the agency. Council members pushed back, holding a hearing and appearing before the General Assembly this week to voice objections.
Those rising tensions were not apparent, however, during most of Thursday night’s hearing on Leach. Repeatedly, council members praised Leach’s communication with them in her role as deputy mayor, which she has held since 2021.
“It has been a pleasure working with you,” said Democratic Councilman Mark Conway, one of the members who ultimately voted against Leach. “You are always responsive. You are certainly very thoughtful and interested in issues.”
In her previous role as deputy mayor, Leach was a visible representative for Scott leading the city’s outreach programs to squeegee workers and working on a guaranteed income pilot program.
Members of the public who attended the hearing also were complimentary of Leach.
Yolanda Pulley, a leader with People Empowered by the Struggle, said she has found many city officials to be disrespectful. Not Leach, she said.
“I asked her who she was and where she was from,” Pulley said. “I said, ‘Our city has a habit of bringing people into our city that don’t understand us.’”
Leach responded to Pulley’s skepticism by asking for a chance to prove herself, Pulley said.
“She is one of Baltimore City’s ... most valuable gems,” Pulley said. “She’s different. She gets it. She’s one of the people. She don’t make it all about politics or all about policy.”
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It was the role of the city administrator, however, and the structure of the office that drew numerous questions from committee members and proved to be the sticking point.
Costello, who later voted against Leach, asked her to justify the more than $908,000 in annual salaries paid to the city administrator and five staff members, particularly as the city has been unable to resume weekly recycling.
Under Leach’s predecessor, the city administrator was the second-highest paid city employee behind Police Commissioner Michael Harrison, who made $276,375 in 2021. Leach currently makes $197,676, while her deputy makes $215,000. Two assistant city administrators are paid $129,000 and $147,961, respectively.
Leach defended the salaries, saying the staff has an extensive background in government and administration.
“These are the salaries they demand,” she said, noting they could make $20,000 to $50,000 more in the private sector.
Baltimore’s city administrator role was created via a charter amendment spearheaded by Scott when he served on the City Council. He argued at the time that the role was a politically neutral way to “professionalize city government.” Voters overwhelmingly approved the position in a 2020 referendum.
Conway said he could not “wrap his head around” the separation of powers between the city administrator and the mayor’s chief of staff.
“I structurally don’t understand why that needs to be a charter position,” he said.
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The city administrator is charged with leading the city’s staff of roughly 12,500 and managing efforts to tackle some of Baltimore’s most persistent bureaucratic challenges, such as water billing and procurement systems, as well as recycling collection.
Council members questioned Leach on some of those nagging challenges.
Democratic Committee Chairman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer asked Leach about her plan for resuming weekly recycling collection. For more than a year, Baltimore has been collecting recycling on a biweekly basis due to staffing shortages, an issue frequently targeted for criticism by council members.
Leach said she could not give a date for when weekly recycling pickup would resume, but the city is exploring options for what she called “alternatives,” including using contractors to assist with collection or partnering with a neighboring jurisdiction that has trucks small enough to navigate Baltimore’s narrow alleys. Baltimore already has employed private contractors to assist with trash and recycling collection.
“Those are all the things I want to analyze,” she said. “I want to ensure what we roll out is valuable and sustainable for this city.”
Tensions exploded during the final moments of Thursday’s hearing when it became apparent that Leach would not receive the necessary votes.
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Her voice raised, Ramos called those voting against Leach “irresponsible.” Leach’s family and supporters in council chambers applauded loudly.
“We are here to give an opportunity for leadership in our city,” she said. “She’s performed anything I’ve ever asked and then some, frankly. If you have problems with the office ... let’s do that somewhere else.”
Yelling from the back of the council chamber, Torrence argued the vote should be invalidated because Costello voted remotely.
Ramos said after the meeting Mosby recently told council members they were not to vote if attending meetings remotely. He did not put that in writing, she said.
Democratic Council Vice President Sharon Green Middleton said she was voting “no” because the city is “disorganized” and in “disarray.”
“This vote is not about you, personally,” Middleton told Leach. “It’s not about the work.”
If Leach is confirmed to the city administrator position, she would be the second person to hold the post. Chris Shorter, the first, departed in December.