By Stephen Janis, Special to the AFRO
A city that has endured a continuing cycle of scandals entered a new chapter April 2, with current Mayor Catherine Pugh taking an “indefinite” leave of absence. The move thrust City Council President Bernard “Jack” Young into the top job, as he assumed the title of interim mayor.
But at a hastily called press conference Young, made it clear his appointment as “ex-officio” mayor was about continuity, promising to bring stability to an office that has been in turmoil.
“The past few weeks have been painful and traumatizing for all of us,” Young said. “I look forward to serving as a stabilizing force in the city.”
Pugh took the leave of absence after more revelations emerged regarding a series of deals involving her Healthy Holly series of children’s books.
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.
When asked if the mayor should resign in light of the most recent revelations Young. declined to comment, only saying he fully supported a series of ongoing investigations into the deals.
The Sun also reported that Pugh could be facing criminal charges. Her attorney said that State Prosecutor Emmitt Davitt had opened an investigation into Pugh’s book deals.
Last week Pugh held an at times emotional press conference where she tried to explain the open-ended deals that netted her LLC, Healthy Holly $500,000 from UMMS.
Among the details she revealed was that the fourth and fifth books in the series were not printed. An omission she explained in part because her contracts with the UMMS system had no specific delivery dates or even required that the books be delivered in any specific time frame.
Pugh’s leave of absence means she continues to collect her salary even as Young assumes control of the city. It’s a scenario proscribed in the city charter, but according to city solicitor Andre Davis has no specific date certain when the mayor would either have to resign or return to the job.
“It’s all covered by the Charter. Jack’s ex-officio and (Councilwoman Sharon) Green (Middleton) becomes acting president of the Council. Mayor is on paid leave of absence,” Davis told The AFRO.
“No limit is indicated.”
Pugh’s departure appears to portend a wide-open race for mayor in the upcoming 2020 election.
Former Mayor Shelia Dixon, who endured a years-long investigation by state prosecutors and eventually resigned after a conviction on a single count of misconduct, said she has empathy for Pugh.
“I am utterly heartbroken by the developments that have unfolded over the past several weeks. I pray that Mayor Pugh continues to recover from her illness,” Dixon said.
But, she’s also concerned that a city facing record high crime and turmoil at the top of the police department may suffer from a lack of permanent leadership.
“My focus is that of a taxpayer. We need to know everybody who’s within city government is doing their job and staying focused,” she said.
“And that’s something that hasn’t been happening.”