By Taya Graham and Stephen Janis, Specials to the AFRO
At Baltimore’s annual taxpayer’s night Tuesday, where residents have a chance to voice their concerns about how the city is governed, Jacques Thompson was adamant it was time for Mayor Catherine Pugh to go.
“I think it’s very disgraceful to be involved in such a mess. It doesn’t help our image at all, “ he told the AFRO.
In this Dec. 6, 2016, file photo, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh delivers an address during her inauguration ceremony inside the War Memorial Building in Baltimore. A spokesman for the embattled mayor of Baltimore says she’ll return from her leave of absence as soon as her health allows. Spokesman James Bentley told The Baltimore Sun on Saturday, April 6, 2019, that Pugh’s health is improving. It’s unclear when she’ll return. Pugh abruptly took her leave last week to recover from pneumonia. Meanwhile, a scandal involving her sale of children’s books to high-profile clients has intensified. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)
“I think she should resign.”
And he was not alone. Several residents who spoke to the AFRO felt the controversy surrounding Pugh’s plethora of books deals was too much of a distraction for her to remain.
But if and when Pugh will step down is a question that remains unanswered. And the uncertainty is causing a politically fraught power struggle at city hall as the calls for Pugh to step down intensifies.
Last week all 14 members of the council signed a letter calling for her to resign immediately. But shortly after the missive was made public the mayor’s spokesman James Bentley released a statement that she fully intended to return from her leave of absence, health permitting.
“Mayor Pugh has taken a leave to focus on recovering from pneumonia and regaining her health. She fully intends to resume the duties of her office and continuing her work on behalf of the people and the City of Baltimore.”
It’s a statement that leaves the city in limbo. And a reminder that while ex-officio Mayor Jack has a temporary hold on the office, the city has no clear direction amid a series of crises including record levels of violence and a new budget that must be passed by July.
For now, Young’s spokesman Lester Davis says the former Council president is focused on bringing stability and assuring residents that the city is moving forward.
“His focus is on running the city, and trying to make sure people understand that the city is in good hands,” Davis told the AFRO.
But as Pugh’s legal woes have continued to mount, daily revelations about the sale of books have raised more concerns about the propriety of the deals and the integrity of city hall.
Along with the roughly 100,000 copies purchased by the University of Maryland Medical System, Kaiser Permanente admitted they paid $114,000 for 20,000 books just before the city entered a lucrative $48 million contract to provide health insurance to municipal employees.
The Baltimore Sun also reported that Associated Black Charities paid $80,000 for 10,000 additional books.
Separately, the Maryland Automobile Insurance Fund (MAIF) donated $7,500 to Healthy Holley LLC. The donation came during Pugh’s tenure as a state senator while she was shepherding legislation for MAIF, a state sponsored fund that offers car insurance for people with poor driving records.
Pugh’s lawyers have confirmed the mayor is under criminal investigation by the State Prosecutors Office.
The litany of deals has also prompted the council to consider sweeping reforms, especially Baltimore’s nearly all-powerful mayor system which confers complete control over spending to the city’s chief executive.
“The structure of Baltimore’s government has gone unchanged for the 35 years that I’ve been alive. During that time my beloved city has failed to live up to its limitless potential,” Councilman Brandon Scott told the AFRO.
Currently the council cannot allocate money or appropriate funds through legislation. It also takes a super-majority of council members to override a mayoral veto. The Board of Estimates, the body which approves all city contracts, is also controlled by the mayor.
In 2016 the council had an opportunity to increase its power by voting on a series of charter amendments that would have eliminated the mayor’s hold on the BOE and give the council the power to appropriate funds. But both measures failed when then Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake vetoed them.
“Conducting a deep analysis of our government structure including making significant change to it is a must for Baltimore moving forward. Anyone who thinks we can just plug in great people into a broken structure and expect them to excel is sorely mistaken,” Scott said.
Meanwhile the apparent vacuum in leadership has prompted a former candidate for citywide office to announce his candidacy for mayor.
Former assistant Maryland Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah announced he is running for the city’s top job. The former prosecutor is the first of what is expected to be a wide-open field for the Democratic Mayoral primary which is scheduled for spring of 2019.
“What we have endured in Baltimore is heartbreaking and humiliating. From our street corners to City Hall, I am running to put an end to crime and corruption,” said Vignarajah.
Vignarajah unsuccessfully ran against City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby in 2018, placing third behind defense attorney Ivan Bates. He says he plans to run for the top job as an anti-corruption candidate.
“Baltimore is in crisis. There is no plan, no vision, no sense of urgency. We are victims of soaring crime, a shrinking economy, and staggering corruption—we are also victims of low expectations and a deficit of leadership.”