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Baltimore City Council members seek charter reforms to allow removal of a mayor amid investigations into Catherine Pugh

Councilman Kristerfer Burnett, District 8, discusses a charter amendment the City Council will consider that gives the council the ability to impeach a mayor. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun video_

Giving the City Council power to force out Baltimore’s mayor is part of a package of legislative reforms being introduced Monday.

The proposals come amid FBI raids, ongoing investigations and calls for Democratic Mayor Catherine Pugh’s resignation — all fallout from more than $800,000 in deals she struck to sell her self-published “Healthy Holly” children book series.

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The 14-member council, all Democrats, have called for Pugh to resign, as have Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, the city’s members in the state House of Delegates (also Democrats) and the Greater Baltimore Committee, an influential business and civic group.

As it is now, a mayor can only be ousted after being convicted of a crime.

“We heard loud and clear: People want the council to do something,” Councilman Kristerfer Burnett said. “They want us to act. This whole situation has been incredibly embarrassing, incredibly disappointing. It has rocked the city to the core.”

Burnett is the lead sponsor of a charter amendment that would allow the council to remove the mayor with the approval of three-fourths of its members. The council could consider such a vote in cases of incompetency, misconduct in office, willful neglect of duty or if a mayor committed a felony or misdemeanor. The process would include public hearings and investigations by the council and the city’s independent inspector general.

The council currently has the power to remove the comptroller, council president and individual members. The proposed amendment would create a process for removing the mayor that mirrors those powers.

If the council approves Burnett’s amendment, the issue would go to voters for consideration in November 2020. That’s the city’s next general election.

Pugh, 69, took a paid leave of absence beginning April 1 to recover from pneumonia. The mayor was inside her Ashburton home last week when the FBI executed a search warrant, retrieving boxes of “Healthy Holly” books and documents. Agents also searched City Hall and a handful of other locations connected to the mayor. The FBI has declined to comment on the nature of the investigation.

Pugh’s attorney Steven Silverman said he’ll vigorously defend her and that she’s entitled to the presumption of innocence.

Pugh has vowed to return to office, but in recent days, her lawyer has said that because of her health, she is not capable yet of making a decision about whether to come back.

Council members also will introduce bills Monday to reduce the number of votes needed to overturn a mayoral veto, give the council more power in the budgeting process and establish the position of a city administrator.

Other measures filed earlier this month would add protections for whistleblowers and toughen requirements for ethics disclosures and financial oversight.

Acting Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young generally supports the efforts but wants the legislation to be shaped by an extensive public vetting process, said Lester Davis, a spokesman for the Democrat.

“Nothing is off the table, but citizens need to have an outsized seat at the table,” Davis said.

Because the charter amendments would not need to be finalized until the summer of 2020, Davis said there would be plenty of time for citizen input.

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Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College, said she expects to see broad public support for building in more checks and balances into Baltimore’s strong-mayor form of government.

Pugh is the second mayor in a decade whose conduct in office has been questioned. In 2009, then-Mayor Sheila Dixon was indicted after a lengthy corruption investigation. The Democrat was convicted of embezzlement and pleaded guilty to perjury. She resigned after negotiating a deal to keep her government pension, worth $83,000 a year.

“It is a unified message from the City Council that the mayor needs to resign now, and by prolonging her time in office, she is disrupting the city business,” Kromer said. “And that is a message that really resonates with the public.”

Kromer said any charter amendment that allows the council to oust a mayor must be explicit in its terms. That would help avoid giving the council freedom to remove an elected chief executive for political reasons.

“This doesn’t affect the mayor unless the mayor is doing something the mayor shouldn’t be doing,” Kromer said.

Councilman Bill Henry is the lead sponsor of a charter amendment to change how many votes are needed for council to overturn a veto by the mayor, reducing the number from three-fourths of the council to two-thirds. It also would take away the mayor’s ability to issue line-item vetoes to the city’s budget.

Another charter amendment Henry is sponsoring would allow the council to boost spending in the annual operating and capital budgets, as long as the increases come with corresponding cuts elsewhere in the spending plan. As it is now, the council can only subtract money from the budget proposed by the mayor. As a result of his proposed changes, Henry said a mayor would have to go to greater lengths to compromise with the council over budgeting priorities.

A strong-mayor is effective in running a big city, Henry said, but Baltimore’s mayor has too much concentrated power. Henry pushed in the past for charter amendments to shift more power to the council, but his efforts were quashed. He said he is confident the measures have a better chance of becoming law this time around.

“It will improve things for everybody in Baltimore if the system of government runs in a way that is more democratic,” Henry said.

Councilman Brandon Scott is introducing the charter amendment to create a city administrator. Cities such as Charlotte, N.C.; Philadelphia, and Washington have a professional administrator to handle day-to-day governmental operations. That frees the mayor up to better handle high-level executive functions, such as reducing crime and improving schools, Scott said.

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He said his legislation was in the works before the controversy involving Pugh came to light last month.

Councilman Ryan Dorsey said he, too, believes the city will be stronger for the changes the council is looking to make — and that the public will be more engaged as a result.

“When something happens like this, we see how capable we are of civic engagement and civil discourse,” Dorsey said, “and how capable we are of hearing the public reaffirm their belief that we should have powers like the ability to remove a mayor. And not because politicians want it, but because people who elected officials represent want it.”

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