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Politics

Baltimore Public Works Director Jason Mitchell resigns amid calls from City Council members to step down

Baltimore Director of Public Works Jason Mitchell has resigned after less than two years on the job that included an outbreak of E. coli in the city’s drinking water supply, a state takeover of one of the city’s wastewater treatment plants and mounting criticism from members of the City Council over reduced recycling collection.

The announcement came Monday, just hours after Democratic Councilmen Zeke Cohen and Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer called for Mitchell to resign if significant progress hadn’t been made toward resuming weekly recycling collection in the next eight weeks.

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Mitchell joined the city in May 2021 from Oakland, California, where he served as assistant city administrator and previously headed that city’s Department of Public Works.

His resignation is effective in April.

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In a news release, Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott said Mitchell is stepping down to care for family.

“Under his leadership, DPW has developed and implemented innovative plans to improve the services of which the people of Baltimore rely,” Scott said. “While we will miss his contributions to the agency, we fully support his decision to prioritize his family at this time.”

The department has been the subject of repeated criticism from elected officials and the public during Mitchell’s tenure, most recently when E. coli was detected in a portion of the drinking water system over Labor Day weekend. Thousands of people in West Baltimore and part of Baltimore County had to boil water for days until the system could be flushed.

The department’s delayed communication of the contamination to residents and the methods it used to contact the public sparked the ire of City Council members and customers. While the first positive test was recorded at 11:30 a.m. Sept. 3, notice was not widely disseminated to the public until the morning of Sept. 5, which was Labor Day, a review found. And the department’s initial communication was via Twitter and an online platform, Nextdoor, to targeted neighborhoods.

During a hearing, council members lambasted department leadership, saying they were “disgusted” and “disappointed” with the flow of information.

Council members questioned the use of Twitter, as opposed to other social media platforms or methods of communication, particularly given the limited internet access and older ages of some West Baltimore residents.

Cohen said Monday that Public Works is among the most important departments in the city because it is where residents most directly interact with city employees.

“If those systems are not functioning properly, our residents reflect that back to us and frustration grows,” he said.

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Schleifer noted that he and Cohen did not demand Mitchell’s immediate resignation. They wanted change, he said.

“We were very clear and consistent that we want these basic city services to be provided by every single agency,” he said. “We want workers to be taken care of in every single agency, and unfortunately, that has not been taking place in the Department of Public Works.”

Mitchell’s tenure included the discovery of severe problems at both of the city’s wastewater treatment plants — the two largest in the state. State inspections revealed that long-standing mechanical issues at the plants resulted in millions of gallons of excessive pollution overflowing into the Patapsco and Back rivers, which border the facilities.

A blistering report from the Maryland Environmental Service, dispatched last spring to provide emergency assistance at the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant, blamed the department for a “lack of leadership,” as understaffing and insufficient maintenance hurled the plant into disrepair.

When state staffers arrived at the plant, Mitchell displayed a lack of urgency about the plant’s woes, according to the MES report. During discussions about bringing a potable water line into the plant to address a problem, Mitchell defended the city’s slow action, saying only seven days had passed since the state stepped in. State officials reportedly reminded him that the plant had been out of compliance with its environmental permit for seven months.

Mitchell was an infrequent attendee at subsequent meetings, and his bureau chief maintained a “defensive attitude” according to the report, which the authors stated “does not bode well in expecting workers to be responsible and accountable.”

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Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, left, stands with Jason Mitchell, right, then the new director of public works for the city, after a swearing-in ceremony in 2021 at City Hall.

Following the report, the Scott administration came to Mitchell’s defense, emphasizing that the issues at the plant predated his tenure. A spokesman for Scott said at the time that the department had a “renewed commitment to continuing to address these challenges, including governance, operations, and employee safety” under his leadership.

Mitchell’s departure came as a surprise to Alice Volpitta, Baltimore Harbor waterkeeper for Blue Water Baltimore, an environmental nonprofit that is among the loudest voices decrying the city’s handling of its wastewater facilities and infrastructure.

“Throughout all of the different infrastructure failures that have been happening over the past year, one thing I’ve been frustrated by is the lack of accountability,” Volpitta said. “I am glad to see that someone is being held accountable.”

Volpitta said she is hopeful that the change in leadership won’t interrupt productive discussions between the city and state to establish a consent decree for the wastewater plants. Blue Water is a party in those negotiations and also has a federal lawsuit against the city over the pollution from its wastewater facilities.

Curtailed recycling service has been the subject of repeated criticism of the public works department during Mitchell’s tenure, although there were service issues that predated his arrival. For instance, service was suspended altogether for nearly five months in 2020 as the department struggled to contain COVID infections among sanitation staff.

After Mitchell came on board, the city announced plans to scale back collections to biweekly in light of pickups being routinely missed, resulting in recyclables piling up for weeks in some neighborhoods. Officials said the move was necessitated by massive staffing shortages as a result of the pandemic. They have continued to fault staffing problems when pressed for a date to resume weekly collection.

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Council members mounted a veritable filibuster last summer during budget talks, peppering Public Works officials with questions about recycling collection. Mitchell argued at the time a route optimization study should be conducted before full service resumed.

During a council meeting Monday, several council members defended Mitchell. Democratic Councilman Antonio Glover, a former employee of the department, pleaded with Mitchell to stay. The employees of DPW want to work for Mitchell, he said.

“I understand your frustration,” he said to Mitchell. “I understand things don’t happen overnight. I understand you came here during a pandemic.”

Mitchell replaced acting Public Works Director Matt Garbark, who now heads the Office of Infrastructure Development. Before Garbark, the city had a longtime director in Rudolph S. Chow from 2014 to 2020.

Mitchell was paid a salary of $245,000 in fiscal year 2021.

Baltimore’s water system saw some improvements during his tenure. The city’s meter shop employees, who are charged with repairing and reading water meters in the city and Baltimore County, returned to work during Mitchell’s first few months on the job. Most had been on paid leave for the first year of the pandemic, contributing to a repair backlog.

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The city news release announcing Mitchell’s departure also said customer service for the system improved during his tenure. Average call times were reduced from 20 minutes to two minutes, email responses from 25 days to five days, and the setup of payment plans from 70 days to 10 days. City policy calls for billing complaints to be acknowledged within 48 hours and resolved within five business days.


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