By Stephen Janis and Taya Graham, Special to the AFRO

With mayor Catherine Pugh still on leave and questions surrounding a series of book deals she made with a variety of institutions subject to criminal investigation, the city council announced a flurry of proposals to rebalance power at City Hall.

Calling the latest round of scandals evidence the all-powerful mayoral system is ripe for reform, City Councilman Bill Henry said the council must dismantle a system that has proved ill-equipped to maintain integrity in the city’s highest office.

“Power is tempting,” Henry said.  “And a lot of power is a lot of temptation. It would be better and safer for all of us here in Baltimore to spread that power out a little bit.”

Baltimore City Councilman Bill Henry speaks about proposed amendments to the Baltimore City Charter as councilmembers Mary Pat Clarke, Shannon Snead and Zach Cohen look on. (Photo: Taya Graham)

To begin the process Henry is proposing a charter amendment which would end the near total control of budgeting granted to the Mayor. Instead he is seeking a ballot initiative that would break from a long-standing tradition which allowed the council to only cut, not appropriate money.

“We’re the ones who hear most clearly the voice of the people and the voice of the people and they would like to see Baltimore run a little bit differently,” Henry said.

But the council’s proposals reach far beyond the budget and into areas of governance that have long-remained off-limits to legislative control.

Among them, lowering the number of votes needed to override a mayoral veto from a super-majority or 3/4ths of the council to 2/3rds of the city’s legislative body.

City Councilman Ryan Dorsey is also introducing legislation to both protect whistleblowers and move oversight of the city’s Ethic’s Board from Legislative Reference to the purview of the city’s Inspector General’s Office.

One of the most pressing issues the council is seeking to change is the impact of Pugh’s indefinite leave of absence and the lack of an impeachment process.  Currently the charter only allows a sitting mayor to be removed from office if he or she is convicted of a crime.

But Councilman Kristerpher Burnett also introduced a charter amendment which would give the council the ability to remove the mayor with a super majority vote.

“When I first learned of the numerous alleged ethical and financial violations that  may have been committed while in office by Mayor Pugh I knew that just telling my constituents the truth that the members of the city council do not have power to do anything about this situation was an unacceptable answer,” Burnett said.

And while council members affirmed support of Ex-Officio Mayor Jack Young on the impeachment measure, his spokesman Lester Davis was non-committal on allowing the council more input on the budget.

“Ex Officio Mayor Young has encouraged members of the City Council not to rush into a process that would drastically alter the make-up of local government without first engaging in a robust community conversation. That dialogue stands the best chance of producing the best recommendation for change,” Davis told the AFRO.

Last week FBI and IRS agents descended on City Hall, hauling boxes of documents into vans.

They also raided Pugh’s private residence in Ashburton and The Maryland Center for Adult Training a charity run by several of her associates which she previously headed.

The raids heightened calls for Pugh to resign, including Maryland Governor Larry Hogan.

“Now more than ever, Baltimore City needs strong and responsible leadership. Mayor Pugh has lost the public trust. She is clearly not fit to lead.

“For the good of the city, Mayor Pugh must resign.”

Questions surrounding Pugh’s dealings with a variety of insiders and institutions through her Healthy Holly LLC continue to rock the city.

Initially Pugh admitted she had sold 100,000 books to University of Maryland Medical System for $500,000.   Pugh sat on the board of the non-profit hospital system until she resigned after the Baltimore Sun revealed the purported self-dealing which netted her hundreds of thousands of dollars for books that were in some cases not printed.

But subsequently a series of revelations that city contractors like Kaiser Permanente and municipal financier JP Grant who did business with Baltimore also purchased books prompted all fourteen members of the council to sign a letter asking her to resign.

One noticeable absence from the press conference was councilman Eric Costello, who chairs the city’s Taxation and Finance Committee.   His committee would be tasked with vetting the charter amendments before being placed on the 2020 ballot.

But the proposals had strong support of a key state legislator.  State Senator Jill P.  Carter, who introduced a bill to overhaul the UMMES board which was recently signed by Governor Hogan, said the series of measures was long overdue.

For far too long. The Baltimore City Council has had too little controlling power over the city budget. The Baltimore City Council needs more authority, power, and more control over the city budget.