Can the Baltimore City Council oust their corrupt mayor?

Out in Charm City, progress in sorting out Mayor Catherine Pugh’s BookGate scandal is dragging on slowly. There have been no new revelations in a week or more, though official investigations have kicked off. But what about the mayor herself? Pugh has been laying low for over a month now, claiming to be recovering from a case of pneumonia. An Acting Mayor from the City Council has taken over her duties while she continues to collect her taxpayer-funded paycheck at home. The Acting Mayor recently put two of Pugh’s most senior aides on leave, but that’s about all he can do for now.

So is she going to resign? According to her spokesperson, that’s a hard nope. She plans to return to work just as soon as she’s able. The City Council, however, has been busy working on plans to either do something about her scandals or at least make sure they don’t happen again. Councilman Ryan Dorsey introduced a new package of legislation including three different measures that would rein in the power of the Mayor’s office, require more complete disclosure of all financial dealings, protect whistleblowers and make it easier to remove a sitting mayor from office. (Baltimore Sun)

Dorsey’s package, in the works before details of Pugh’s book sales were publicly known, includes measures that would ramp up financial oversight and disclosure requirements and protect whistleblowers. He said the legislation takes on added meaning amid the revelations of Pugh’s books deals, some with entities doing business before the city.

“This recent scandal is only the most recent and most egregious and most publicly understood manifestation of a system that has not been kept in check for a very long time,” Dorsey said, “and these bills aim to do but a part of bringing our system in check.”

Pugh has taken a leave of absence, citing the need to recover from a case of pneumonia, and it’s not known whether she broke any laws in collecting some $800,000 to distribute the healthy lifestyle books to children. But the political process that is now beginning in the City Council will play out alongside several reviews and investigations of her conduct.

The Sun has done an excellent job of digging into all the details of these reform measures and it’s really worth a look. There are a few highlights we should touch on here, however, that may either encourage or enrage you, depending on your preferences.

The first thing worth noting is the failure of Baltimore to establish any such oversight in the past. As it turns out, the City Council passed a pair of amendments to the city charter back in 2016 that would have instituted similar reforms. That was done in response to former Mayor Sheila Dixon being found guilty of embezzlement and removed from office. (That was two mayors ago. You might be sensing a pattern here.) But her replacement in the office, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, vetoed both of the measures that would have limited her own power and accountability. Go figure.

Now the Council is prepared to try again, but it’s a ponderous process. Even if they accept Dorsey’s package as is, it can’t go into effect until it’s been put before the public for a referendum at the next general election in November of 2020. If it does pass, not only will it be easier to remove a corrupt mayor, but it will take away much of their power. Currently, the mayor, by way of appointments, controls three of the five votes on the powerful Board of Estimates, which approves major contracts. Mysteriously, many of those contracts wind up going out on a no-bid basis to people who coincidentally make significant donations to political campaigns, direct money into the pockets of elected officials themselves or both. Under the new plan, that board, along with the ethics board, would move under the oversight of the inspector general’s office. They’re currently controlled by… do I really need to say it? The Mayor.

If they manage to force these changes through, perhaps the city government of Baltimore will be more transparent and accountable. But it will be well into 2021 before it all takes effect even if they pull this feat off. And until then, Mayor Pugh can continue being the mayor or simply staying home on “medical leave” and collecting her paycheck.