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After corruption scandal, Baltimore City Council committee will consider government reform measures

A Baltimore City Council committee will discuss a slate of government reform measures in the wake of the Healthy Holly scandal. In this April 25, 2019, file photo, an FBI agent carries boxes of books from one of then-Mayor Catherine Pugh's homes.
A Baltimore City Council committee will discuss a slate of government reform measures in the wake of the Healthy Holly scandal. In this April 25, 2019, file photo, an FBI agent carries boxes of books from one of then-Mayor Catherine Pugh's homes. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

Less than two months after Baltimore’s former mayor pleaded guilty to conspiracy and tax evasion charges, the City Council is pushing forward on a slate of government reform measures that include giving itself the power to oust a mayor for misconduct.

Council members introduced a number of charter amendments in the wake of the wide-ranging “Healthy Holly” scandal, in which former Democratic Mayor Catherine Pugh sold hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of self-published children’s books to companies that did business with the city. Pugh pleaded guilty to federal fraud and tax charges and is awaiting sentencing.

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In addition to giving the council the ability to remove a mayor, the amendments would create a city administrator position, reduce the number of votes needed to overturn a mayor’s veto and give council members more power in the budgeting process.

The reforms wouldn’t eliminate the so-called “strong mayor” system, something council members have attempted unsuccessfully in the past. But council members who support the new measures say they would institute more checks and balances.

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“Whether we eliminate the strong mayor system or not, there is value to seeing how a system would work where we’ve just tried to make the balance a little more even,” said Democratic City Councilman Bill Henry, who is leading the discussions. “These are ways you can even the power dynamic without eliminating the strong mayor entirely.”

A newly created council panel — the Equity and Structure Committee — will discuss the proposals Wednesday at a hearing. If the council and mayor approve them by July, they would go on the November ballot as amendments to the city charter for voters to consider.

“If Baltimore is going to reach its full promise, it has to have a government structure rooted in 21st-century practices,” said Democratic City Council President Brandon Scott, who is running for mayor. “A city government that’s the same structure as 1974 is not capable of producing results the citizens of Baltimore deserve in 2020.”

It’s important, Henry said, to have discussions about the mayor’s power during an election cycle.

More than a dozen Democrats are seeking the nomination to become Baltimore’s next mayor in an April 28 primary, including incumbent Bernard C. “Jack” Young, Scott, former Mayor Sheila Dixon, former state Deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah, former Baltimore Police Department spokesman T.J. Smith, state Sen. Mary Washington and former T. Rowe Price executive Mary Miller.

“I really wanted the conversation about the structure of city government to be something that’s happening along with the conversation of who should be running it,” Henry said. “Once you have a set administration, conversations about structure tend to be consciously or unconsciously about the individuals. You really should have your structure conversations going into the decision process.”

A hearing Wednesday at City Hall will give voters a chance to weigh in. There will be other meetings around the city before a final council vote.

The city’s Law Department says there are some problems with the proposals.

Regarding the city administrator position, Solicitor Victor Tervala wrote that the bill is “full of inconsistencies.” The legislation, as drafted, would create a senior position akin to a chief administrative officer. The mayor is regarded under the bill as the city’s CEO. The law department believes such an administrator’s office could grow unchecked and duplicate mayoral functions.

“When two offices possess parallel or overlapping responsibilities, it raises concerns about the overall functioning and accountability of both,” Trevala wrote in an assessment of the legislation. If the mayor is not intended to be “merely the ceremonial figurehead” of city government, he wrote, that office must remain empowered to oversee and direct city operations.

Scott, who introduced that legislation, said cities such as Washington and Philadelphia have a professional administrator who handles day-to-day governmental operations. He said that frees up the mayor to handle high-level functions, like reducing crime.

“It allows them to be the boss, to have that vision," he said. “The mayor is still held responsible, but there has to be a better structure to operate.”

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The council in April confronted the issue of Pugh continuing in office while she was under criminal investigation, calling for her to step down — a request believed to be unprecedented in city history. The current charter includes no provision for the council removing a mayor, according to the law department. Pugh didn’t resign until several weeks later, after FBI and IRS agents raided City Hall and her homes.

The charter amendment would allow the council to remove a mayor with a three-fourths vote if the mayor has engaged in a felony or misdemeanor in office, or in other misconduct, based on charges from the city’s legislative investigations committee or the city’s inspector general. The council has 14 members, as well as the council president.

The veto override measure would reduce the majority needed to pass an ordinance into law over a mayor’s objection from three-fourths of the council to two-thirds.

The council has pushed for dramatic changes to the city’s power structure in the past. In 2016, then-Council President Young backed a measure that would’ve effectively ended the “strong mayor” form of government. It would have taken away mayoral control of the Board of Estimates — which approves all city spending above $25,000. The Democratic mayor at the time, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, vetoed the bill.

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