Mark Washington calls the efforts to redevelop the crime- and blight-ridden Tivoly Avenue area of his neighborhood a “Sisyphean rock.” But after 11 years and three mayors, all of whom he credits with helping push the rock up the hill, the community leader said he could finally see the top: The plan was to soon announce a developer who would build new housing on the 9-acre site.
But then one month ago, that third mayor, Catherine Pugh, took an open-ended leave of absence amid a growing scandal over her “Healthy Holly” books and, now, a federal investigation over her financial dealings.
Washington, who heads the Coldstream Homestead Montebello Community Corp., said he’s sure he wasn’t the only one who immediately began emailing other city officials, fearful that their ongoing projects would enter the same limbo in which the mayor’s office currently finds itself.
“I was told, no, things aren’t going to be put on hold,” Washington said. “I feel the city of Baltimore is in very capable hands with Ex Officio Mayor Jack Young.”
But even as Young, the city council president who has replaced Pugh on a temporary basis, has won plaudits for bringing a measure of stability to the government, some say they fear longer-range effects of having an interim mayor. Baltimore, with its many needs and its strong-mayor form of governance, can’t operate indefinitely without clarity on who will serve out Pugh’s term through the end of next year, observers say.
“The Fire Department continues to put out fires, the garbage continues to be picked up, the police are still on the streets,” said the Rev. Douglas Miles, a leader of the community group BUILD. “But if this goes on much longer, if this instability goes on much longer, it tends to sap the energy that could be spent in better ways.
“I think this is new territory for Baltimore,” Miles said. “I can’t recall a time when we faced this kind of crisis in leadership.”
A government as large as Baltimore’s won’t skid to a halt over uncertainty even at its topmost ranks, experts said. But there’s a difference between the ground-level running of a city, they said, and the kind of leadership that addresses overarching needs and sets a course for the future.
Jay Brodie, the retired head of the Baltimore Development Corp., said he worries less about the “stuff that’s in the pipeline,” and more about major initiatives, whether it’s repairing neighborhoods beset by vacant buildings and crime or developing better public transportation.
“Mayors are needed to keep the momentum going through the various arms of city government,” he said. “They need to be pushed, and there needs to be someone pushing, and that’s the mayor.”
Roger Hartley, dean of the College of Public Affairs at the University of Baltimore, said Young and his staff are faced with not just taking over the mayor’s duties but continuing their own. And, with top Pugh aides having left, been put on leave or fired, “a lot of things are in a holding pattern,” he said.
“Any initiatives they were working on are frozen,” Hartley said. “That’s a lot of turnover, and a lot of uncertainty.”
But the biggest need is clarity at the top, he said.
“There has to be a resolution on who is mayor,” Hartley said. “Being interim, as well as Jack Young is doing, in my opinion, does not give the same type of legitimacy.”
Young has said he will not run for mayor himself, even as city council members and others say he’s doing well in that role.
“I get texts from people saying tell Mayor Young he’s doing an excellent job,” said Councilman Robert Stokes. “Everything’s been positive.”
Fellow Councilman Zeke Cohen said the work of city government is continuing smoothly, giving the example of long-sought stop signs being installed this week on a street in his district.
At the same time, Cohen said that in the long term Baltimore needs a permanent leader. He pointed to next year’s anticipated debate over school funding in the General Assembly as one high-stakes issue on the horizon.
“Instability is not good and having this cloud hanging over city government can be really harmful,” he said. “When we think about investment in our city, whether it's economic investment, dollars for education, whatever it is, I think it is really hard for people to want to support our city when there is not a permanent mayor at the helm.”
There is also a critical opening in the transportation department. Its director, Michelle Pourciau, resigned Friday amid an investigation into the department. Young has no immediate plans to hire a replacement, his spokesman, Lester Davis, said Tuesday, and instead, Frank Murphy, a 40-year veteran of the department, will serve as acting director.
“The agency won’t miss a beat,” Davis said. “What’s more important is figure out what the agency needs without moving forward in a rash manner. He’s not trying to rush that process.”
Residents have watched a fast-moving and in many ways unprecedented drama unfold before their eyes since The Baltimore Sun first reported that Pugh and other members of the University of Maryland Medical System board of directors had business dealings with the organizations they were governing. Pugh had sold hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of her self-published “Healthy Holly” children’s books to the system, while other members had lucrative contracts to sell everything from insurance services to pest control to hospitals in the system.
The scandal quickly expanded, with revelations that Pugh sold books to other groups and companies that had business before the city or state while she was mayor or, previously, a state senator. The governor asked the state prosecutor to investigate, the General Assembly passed legislation to reform the UMMS board and, last week, FBI and IRS agents descended on Pugh’s homes, her City Hall offices and other locations related to her lawyer, campaign treasurer, an aide and a job training site she once led.
The calls for her to resign from office have grown louder over time, and include the governor, city council and the high-powered business and civic group, Greater Baltimore Committee.
Cohen said he feels a sense of shared pain in the city.
“People feel betrayed,” Cohen said. “People feel hurt. People feel confused as to what’s happening with Mayor Pugh and the scandal that surrounds her. It is another black eye to have FBI and IRS raiding City Hall and her home and the lawyer’s offices.”
Alli Smith, an aide in the mayor’s office whose job involves talking with community groups, said one neighborhood leader approached her at a Safe Streets parade on Pennsylvania Avenue over the weekend and described himself as “brokenhearted.”
Smith said she’s been trying to reassure community leaders — many of whom Pugh brought into City Hall and partnered with — that their voices and work would still matter under Young’s leadership.
“They’re so baffled or confused or hurt by what’s going on,” Smith said.
Karen Stokes, the CEO of the community development group Strong City Baltimore, happens to share the same name as Pugh’s chief lobbyist, who was among the aides who have since been let go. But her greater concern is keeping her group’s own projects on track regardless of who is serving as mayor.
City officials often turn to Strong City for help in community engagement for various initiatives, and it’s hard to keep residents motivated if they don’t know whether what was a priority yesterday will still be a priority tomorrow, she said.
“It gets more difficult to rev up the troops in the neighborhoods,” said Stokes, whose organization is celebrating its 50th anniversary this weekend. “There’s nothing worse than giving people a reason to be even more cynical about government. It’s hard for us to be a cheerleader for the city when people are out there saying, oh, all government is corrupt.”
She and other community leaders say the experience has reinforced what they’ve always believed — that they need to work at the grassroots for the betterment of city, that their projects need to go on regardless of who is in office.
“We’ve always told people, no one’s waiting for someone to come into office to save them,” Stokes said. “Especially with the last couple of years when there’s been so much change in the city, neighborhoods have to be organized because that’s what will keep them resilient.”
BUILD’s Miles agreed. Since the scandal began, the group, a coalition of interfaith and community organizations, has been reaching out to various parts of the city to begin developing what they call a vision for Baltimore’s future. Pugh’s troubles highlight the need for a shared vision that transcends any one elected official, he said.
“It forces us,” he said, “to take our eyes off of any political officeholder as a savior of the city.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Colin Campbell contributed to this article.