Baltimore Mayor Jack Young speaks about plans for Baltimore while at the National Organization of Black County Officials in Detroit, MI. (Yvonne Wenger / Baltimore Sun video)
DETROIT — Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young’s phone rang over and over at breakfast Friday — his first full day as Baltimore’s chief executive — with calls from the city’s ministers, offering him prayers and words of encouragement and looking for reassurance he won’t change in the face of power and pressure.
“I am going to continue to respond,” Young, 64, told an East Baltimore minister, pledging that his leadership style as the city’s 51st mayor will be the same as it has been for the last decade as City Council president.
“I probably can’t answer all the phone calls that come through, but I will continue to respond and do what I can do. That’s not going to stop. I am God’s man; you’re right,” he told the pastor.
The kind words from Baltimore reached Young at an economic development conference in Detroit, where others attending the National Organization of Black County Officials event greeted Young with applause and handshakes when he was introduced at a morning session as Baltimore’s new mayor. Conference organizers speedily updated his nametag.
Young became mayor Thursday with the resignation of Catherine Pugh as she faces investigations by federal and state authorities. Both are Democrats.
Helen Holton, a former Democratic councilwoman from West Baltimore and director of the National Organization of Black County Officials, said at the conference that Young will be a stabilizing force.
“We don’t always agree, but in the end we still get along because of what we hold in common: a better Baltimore,” Holton said. “What do we have to do to move Baltimore forward? We’re the kind of people, we don’t care what the world says about Baltimore, because we know a different Baltimore.
“And Jack Young at the helm as mayor is probably the best news we can get right about now.”
The new mayor said he supports Police Commissioner Michael Harrison, who relocated from New Orleans this year. He is waiting for Harrison to finish building his leadership team and finalize his strategy for the job, but Young said he knows Harrison’s success will rest on the public’s willingness to break with Baltimore’s “stop snitching” culture. Young said he wants to see whether the city and police can do more to protect witnesses and allay their fears.
“Every citizen in Baltimore has to make sure when crime is happening in their neighborhoods that they report it,” Young said. “I do understand some of the frustrations. People really do want to come forward, but they’re saying, ‘What happens to me and my family if we come forward? Who is going to protect us?’”
Young said Violence Reduction Initiative zones that Pugh put in place to address pockets of high violence have shown signs of success. But the mayor is worried the concentration of resources may come at the expense of other parts of the city. He wants to dig into his questions about that and figure out whether the city can find the right balance.
Young said the likelihood another recession could hit while he is mayor makes him cautious as he considers the city’s needs. For instance, he wants to find a way to keep paying for eyeglasses for schoolchildren and reverse a funding cut facing some of the city’s prenatal programs, but he is not sure what the city can afford.
Adding new recreation centers and paying for drugs that reverse opioid overdoses are also on his want list.
Another focus for Young is to rid the city of the trash people dump in vacant lots. He wants to see if the city can pay to add more sanitation crews, as he gets to work shaping the city’s proposed $2.9 billion operating budget to his liking in time for the start of the July 1 fiscal year.
While serving as the city’s acting mayor for the last four weeks, Young has visited classrooms, convened several meetings of the mayor’s cabinet and announced a $10 million redevelopment project for the Upton neighborhood.
He said the redevelopment is exciting, but he is wary of the effects it can bring to Baltimore’s longtime — or legacy — homeowners. As a child, he said his family moved frequently — any time “urban renewal” rippled through the neighborhood where they were living and drove up the rent. Young said he wants to see whether local or state legislation could add protections to legacy homeowners from property taxes that rise with new assessments.
“Displacement is important to me,” Young said. “That is why I am watching now as we rebuild neighborhoods that legacy homeowners who have been here through all the crime, all the grime, all of the hell, are able to remain in their neighborhoods.”
Young has been carrying out the responsibilities of mayor since April 1, when Pugh announced she was taking a leave of absence to recover from pneumonia.
Young stepped out Thursday afternoon from a conference workshop on the 2020 census to take a call from City Solicitor Andre Davis, who told him Pugh had resigned via a letter read to the public by her attorney.
Her decision, Young said, is in the best interest of the city.
Pugh’s resignation comes as she faces multiple state and federal investigations into her financial dealings. Pugh made deals to sell her “Healthy Holly” children’s book series for some $800,000. Some of the sales were made to groups that had business before the city.
As City Council president, Young moved up to mayor under the city’s charter. He will earn $185,000 in his new job, $63,000 more than he did in leading the council.
Young is aware some have questioned his decision to not hop the first flight back to Baltimore. He believes doing so would not only waste the city’s money, it would send a message that he does not trust the civil servants fanned out across the city to handle crime, trash pickup and every other municipal task.
“I have good people running the city of Baltimore and I trust them. And I want you to trust them, too,” Young said.
He hopes to come home with ideas about how to entice developers without public financing and how to help millennial city workers save for retirement. It was at such a conference, Young said, that he figured out how to create his signature youth fund, which has about $12 million set aside from property taxes to pay for programs for children and teens.
The city spending panel agreed in April to spend $4,400 to send Young and two other city officials to the conference.
Young said he has not spoken to Pugh or Republican Gov. Larry Hogan since becoming mayor, although his phone continues to buzz with phone calls and text messages. Among the messages was one with good wishes from Republican Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, Young said.
On the matter of personnel, Young was reluctant to offer much, saying he was encouraged by the city’s legal counsel to be cautious about what he talks about publicly. He fired several of Pugh’s closest aides, put several others on leave and bid adieu to a couple more who left on their own. He did not say what plans he may have for replacing some of the aides, including the city’s lobbyist.
“Where changes need to me made, I will make them,” Young said. “As much as possible, I am not looking at getting rid of anybody. If you’re doing your job and doing it well, and you’re being responsive, you shouldn’t have anything to worry about.”
The barrage of calls he has received from the city’s faith community — including four ministers who called in consecutive order early Friday — are humbling to him.
“My faith means everything to me,” Young said. “This is a part of my ministry. This is not a job to me. God has his way of placing people in certain places at certain times. Just like ministers are called to preach, I believe that elected leaders are called to the profession that they have, as well.”