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Baltimore City Council passes new, tighter ethics rules after Pugh scandal

The Baltimore City Council has unanimously passed new, tighter ethics regulations in the aftermath of the self-dealing scandal and resignation of former Mayor Catherine Pugh. In this March 28, 2019, file photo, Pugh talks about her "Healthy Holly" book business and baby products during a City Hall news conference.
The Baltimore City Council has unanimously passed new, tighter ethics regulations in the aftermath of the self-dealing scandal and resignation of former Mayor Catherine Pugh. In this March 28, 2019, file photo, Pugh talks about her "Healthy Holly" book business and baby products during a City Hall news conference. (Amy Davis / TNS)

The Baltimore City Council unanimously passed Monday new, tighter ethics regulations in the aftermath of the self-dealing scandal and resignation of former Democratic Mayor Catherine Pugh.

The council voted 15-0 to approve legislation from Democratic City Councilman Ryan Dorsey to require people filing financial disclosure forms to list all directorships they hold, not just those at entities that do business with the city. Pugh didn’t mention her role as a University of Maryland Medical System board member on forms she filed while mayor, although she disclosed it when she sought the office.

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Pugh resigned from office in May after collecting some $800,000 to produce her self-published “Healthy Holly” children’s books. The medical system, which she helped oversee as a board member, paid her $500,000. Pugh also accepted payments from other entities that she approved to do business with the city, including Kaiser Permanente and Associated Black Charities.

After The Baltimore Sun uncovered the UMMS payments, Pugh amended several years of disclosure forms with the state, as she served as a state senator during a period when such deals were made, to list payments she received.

While Pugh disclosed her ownership of Healthy Holly LLC on her annual city financial disclosure forms, the city code doesn’t require disclosing sources of revenue of businesses that officials own. Dorsey’s bill would increase reporting requirements regarding LLCs by making them list properties the companies own. However, it would not require them to list the companies’ sources of income.

The bill is the first piece of ethics reform legislation to pass the council since the scandal. Council members introduced a series of bills in April proposing changes to government ethics laws, to limit the power of the mayor and to create a way to oust a sitting mayor.

Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young is expected to sign the bill passed Monday, a spokesman said.

“We take this very seriously,” City Council President Brandon Scott, a Democrat, said of the legislation. “We’re going to look to improve transparency and accountability wherever we can.”

Other provisions in Dorsey’s bill will require city agencies to more explicitly outline financial disclosure requirements, including making them part of job postings; securing acknowledgement of the requirements from new hires subject to them, and sharing the names of all employees covered by them with the city ethics board.

Dorsey said several other measures are advancing in the council’s committee process.

Dorsey said he started working on making disclosure requirements more robust after former Police Commissioner Darryl De Sousa was charged federally last year with not filing his taxes. De Sousa pleaded guilty and was sentenced in March to 10 months in prison.

In other business, the council gave approval to legislation aimed at reinstating a property tax credit for newly constructed homes that lapsed this summer.

With a 14-1 vote, the council approved the fast-tracked legislation by voting on it twice in the same meeting. Dorsey cast the lone no vote, citing an analysis by the city’s finance department that found the credit mainly benefits wealthier, whiter neighborhoods.

Council members also introduced a series of bills, including legislation from Democratic Councilman Kris Burnett to target the hard-to-track owners of vacant properties and subject them to fines if they don’t post signs on the abandoned houses identifying themselves and providing contact information.

Burnett’s legislation would require signs to be posted on vacant buildings in the city disclosing not just any legal entity that controls them, but also the identity of the person who controls that entity. Owners currently have to provide that information to the city’s housing department, which must treat it as confidential and can only release it to nearby residents, community association leaders and City Council members.

The signs would have to be visible from the street, with lettering in 18-point type, and as large as a piece of standard writing paper.

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The law could be enforced with environmental citations or criminal prosecution, with penalties as high as $500 a week in fines.

As of last week, records listed 16,784 vacant buildings in the city.

“It’s unnecessarily hard for residents to track down owners of neglected vacant houses across Baltimore city,” Burnett said “My proposed legislation makes the process of identifying and contacting property owners that much easier, providing a direct line of communication to hold them accountable for the conditions of their property.”

Tammy Hawley, a spokeswoman for the housing department, said the city plans to start posting information on the vacant buildings it owns under the brand “Bmore progress” and said the department would review Burnett’s legislation.

“We get the spirit of wanting people to understand what is the status of a building, who’s behind a building, who can be held accountable for the condition of a structure. All of that makes perfect sense to us,” Hawley said. “But we also want to keep in mind what will encourage investment and we also would have to review the specifics of the particular bill.”

Scott also called for a hearing on the fiscal impact on Baltimore of the so-called Kirwan commission recommendations. The commission is studying a how best to improve public education in the state and is recommending a spending increase of $3.8 billion phased-in over 10 years. Scott called the Kirwan recommendations “the most important policy decision” in the state.

“Here in Baltimore, we have not been putting enough of our own local dollars into education,” Scott said.

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