In lame-duck Baltimore mayor’s final months, big decisions and little communication

Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young discusses fireworks safety at a press conference near City Hall in July. Young has held only three in-person news conferences since August.
Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young discusses fireworks safety at a press conference near City Hall in July. Young has held only three in-person news conferences since August. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

The email landed in inboxes around 10:30 a.m. and quickly reverberated around Baltimore.

Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, in the final months of his lame-duck administration, was announcing via news release that the city would outsource its problem-plagued water billing operation and lay off more than 60 employees in the process.


The workers learned they were losing their jobs by reading about it online. Democratic City Council President Brandon Scott said he, too, was caught off guard — even though he chairs a spending panel that approves major contracts and, if elected mayor Nov. 3, will oversee the plan’s implementation.

The episode is perhaps the most emblematic of how Young is handling the final weeks of his short mayoral tenure: pushing forward on decisions with long-lasting implications without fully communicating with his expected successor or the public.


After the coronavirus pandemic hit in March — and while Young was running in the mayoral primary — he increased the number of times per week he locked eyes with the camera to reach Baltimore residents via the city’s livestream and media outlets.

But in recent months, he has dramatically scaled back on these public appearances. Since August, Young has allotted less than 30 minutes cumulatively for questions at news conferences about the coronavirus pandemic, violent crime or general municipal business. Instead, he’s used emails and “virtual briefings” — livestreams without reporters and other members of the public present to ask questions — to make major announcements.

The water meter announcement was blasted out on a Wednesday morning, at a time traditionally used for mayoral news conferences. Young also sent an email to declare Baltimore would loosen restrictions on indoor dining.

“The mayor needs to ensure, even as he’s transitioning out of his role, that during a public crisis he is working to ensure the public has as much information as possible,” said Joanne Antoine, director of Common Cause Maryland.

Young declined to be interviewed for this article, instead answering questions via a spokesman.

Without even a news release, Young in late August forced out three cabinet-level officials in a single day. The mayor’s office disclosed the personnel moves only after questions from reporters. The departures included Housing Commissioner Michael Braverman, who was overseeing the response to a predicted evictions crisis as a result of the pandemic’s economic consequences.

The mayor has declined repeatedly to offer a public explanation for his decisions. Asked about it at a Sept. 2 news conference, the mayor cut off a reporter, saying: “We will not be discussing any personnel decisions.” Young took questions at that event for a total of four minutes.

Scott has said he was not consulted on the personnel moves.

Young’s spokesman, James Bentley, said the mayor is not required to hold regular briefings or to run all personnel moves past the council president. Regarding the water meter contract, Bentley said members of Scott’s staff were briefed on the deal — though Scott maintains the rapid timetable was never made clear to them.

“Mayor Young is committed to working for the residents of Baltimore until the end of his term,” Bentley said.

Howard Libit, a former city spokesman in the administration of Democratic Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s administration, said hosting regular news briefings had value. The Rawlings-Blake administration was guaranteed time in front of the cameras to discuss its initiatives, and officials could take questions from reporters about the issues of the day at the same time.

“If we wanted to put out the message that we wanted to put out, we knew the tough questions were going to come, too,” he said.


“If we wanted to put out the message that we wanted to put out, we knew the tough questions were going to come, too."

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Young has held only three in-person news conferences since August. During that same time period, Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser held more than a dozen.

Bentley said the Young administration tries to get information to respond to all reporters' inquiries, though the mayor is seldom the one delivering the answers.

The mayor has generally kept a much lower public profile since a bruising defeat in June’s crowded primary. Scott won 30% of the vote compared to Young’s 6%. Young has since been clear about his frustrations with both Scott and the media.

The current dynamic at City Hall came up when WYPR-FM’s Tom Hall interviewed Scott the day after the Oct. 7 water billing email. The council president said Young’s announcement surprised him, “just like everyone else.”

Scott has since openly questioned the deal’s legality and joined the City Union of Baltimore, which represents the meter readers, outside City Hall as its members decried the move.

“It sounds like you and Mr. Young just aren’t talking, and we’ve still got a city to run,” Hall observed.

Just this week, the miscommunication was again put in stark relief: Young’s office advanced a plan to add nine positions to the council president’s office, a move Scott opposes. When the pandemic began, the mayor instituted a hiring freeze for nonessential positions that remains in effect. Democratic Del. Nick Mosby, who was Young’s choice for the job, is expected to win the president’s seat.

Scott is the heavy favorite to win the general election over independent Bob Wallace and Republican Shannon Wright in largely Democratic Baltimore.

Young, whose annual salary is roughly $190,000, moved up from City Council president in 2019 when Democratic Mayor Catherine Pugh went on leave and then resigned. He remains in office until his successor is sworn in Dec. 8.

The mayor has lost key staff since the primary. Perhaps the highest-profile departure was in late summer: his spokesman, Lester Davis, who had been instrumental in Young’s communication strategy for more than a decade.

Former Democratic Mayor Kurt Schmoke said the long stretch between a spring primary and a December inauguration can make for strange dynamics in City Hall. That time period used to be much shorter, before Baltimore realigned its electoral calendar to match the presidential primary schedule.

“There’s an awkwardness about the municipal election schedule that we probably need to revisit,” Schmoke said.

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