In Baltimore, a ‘strong mayor’ city with a mayor amid growing scandal, City Council asks Pugh to resign—and hopes she will do it

Baltimore City Councilperson Ryan Dorsey got a call from Councilperson Brandon Scott Saturday evening, asking if he’d join the entire council to call for Mayor Catherine Pugh’s resignation.

“He called and said ‘Ryan, I’m about to ask you a question I already know the answer to,’” Dorsey said over the phone. “He said ‘Would you sign onto a letter from all 14 members of the council calling for the mayor to immediately resign?’ I said ‘Yeah. Without question.’”

Early Monday morning, Scott and the rest of the council released a memo with the subject line “Request for Resignation” signed by all 14 members. Above their signatures it reads, “The entire membership of the Baltimore City Council believes that it is not in the best interest of the City of Baltimore, for you to continue to serve as Mayor. We urge you to tender your resignation, effective immediately.”

City Council President Bernard “Jack” Young acting as mayor ex officio, did not sign the statement.

Pugh is at the center of an ongoing scandal over the sales of her “Healthy Holly” children’s book series to the University of Maryland Medical Center, as well as other organizations such as Kaiser Permanente and Associated Black Charities in what appears to be an elaborate exchange for political favors. The money made off of sales of these janky children books—many of which cannot be accounted for at all—is currently nearing one million dollars.

“This isn’t about her, this isn’t about any councilmember, this isn’t about Acting Mayor Young, this is about the citizens of Baltimore,” Scott said over the phone. “We know that as elected officials and public servants that you have to put yourself aside at all times to do what’s right for the people that you serve.”

One week ago, Pugh announced she would be taking a leave of absence to recover from pneumonia—the same day Governor Larry Hogan requested an investigation into the mayor’s finances. A top aide to Pugh, James T. Smith Jr. resigned on Friday.

Just before noon today, Pugh’s office responded to the call for her resignation.

“Mayor Pugh has taken a leave to focus on recovering from pneumonia and regaining her health,” a terse, written statement said. “She fully intends to resume the duties of her office and continue her work on behalf of the people and the city of Baltimore.”

“We don’t know when the mayor is coming back. She didn’t give a date or a time. We don’t believe that she should come back. We believe the city should move forward and on from her,” Scott said. “We are human and we do feel, I do feel for her as a person but for the sake of the city we feel it’s time to move on.”

Dorsey, along with Councilperson Zeke Cohen had already called for Pugh to resign last week.

“I was more or less immediate in my resolve to say, ‘Look, this mayor really needs to go,’” Dorsey said. “It seemed the writing was on the wall that she would never be able to come back, that [her leave of absence] was just a stall.”

Scott has been hearing from constituents telling him Pugh has to go: “Many of them have said she needs to go and not in those nice terms. I hear it most when I’m in the supermarket or when I’m walking my dog but they are extremely frustrated.”

The last time a mayor in Baltimore endured a similar scandal, it was Sheila Dixon, who did not resign only resigned later on as part of her plea deal (she plead guilty to misconduct in office, felony theft, and misdemeanor embezzlement). Many including Dorsey, accused Pugh of staying in office to use her resignation as part of a negotiation if—or perhaps when—she is charged with a crime. Dixon herself said the upheaval caused by “Healthy Holly” is unprecedented—despite its echoes of her own scandal.

“I don’t think we’ve ever been in this situation before. Even despite what I was going through, I never stopped running and doing the job of mayor and having results so it’s complicated and I don’t think the average citizen realizes what we are going through right now,” Dixon said over the phone. “ It’s going to be very complicated, really confusing. It’s not going to be easy and we are getting ready to come to an election year. People are getting prepared to run for public office so you’ve got that dynamic going on as well.”

There has been speculation that Dixon might run for mayor again—she ran in 2016 and came in second to Pugh, losing by 2,446 votes in the Democratic primary—and last week, a post on her Facebook suggested she was running, though Dixon later said the announcement was not official and that she had been hacked. She has not made a decision about running yet but noted she was considering it long before “Healthy Holly.”

“I have been meeting and looking at it but I hadn’t made a decision on if I am or not. And yes, I get a lot of support from people in this city despite what I went through and I think it’s because people not only see and felt my love for people but they also saw results,” Dixon said.

Scott himself has been rumored to be planning a run for mayor. He did not comment on his plans today.

“Everyone knows that I’ve always said that I’ve had interest in the office,” Scott said. “But the time to have that discussion about my next steps and what I’m going to be doing and what I’m going to be running for—it’s not the day.”

Baltimore is a city with a strong mayor system of governance in which power leans heavily toward the executive branch. This means the mayor has a lot of power when it comes to appointments being made, money being spent, and laws being passed. So like many bold statements by council, the request that Pugh resign is well just that, a request.

“We had to make clear that she’s the only one that thinks that could possibly be acceptable,” Dorsey said.

On March 25, Councilperson Bill Henry said aloud to WJZ reporter Paul Gessler what was being whispered throughout City Hall: Coming out against the mayor is politically unwise—again, especially in a strong mayor city.

“What we want to do in terms of trying to help our constituents and bringing resources into our district, that relies generally speaking on having some kind of working relationship with the executive,” Henry said. “What has been suggested in the past and may be suggested again in the near future is a charter amendment that allows for the council to make its own changes to the budget.”

Two weeks later, “Healthy Holly” keeps growing and in that sense, the entire Council asking Pugh to resign is significant. Dorsey added that the request for Pugh to resign introduces a larger conversation about Baltimore’s need to fix the imbalance of power. It is one thing to be a strong mayor city, it is another thing to be a strong mayor city when that mayor is embroiled in a still-growing scandal.

“We should avail ourselves of the opportunity to restructure our government in a way that is more democratic than its current form and there are a number of ways to do that with particular respect to budgeting, appropriations and things like the number of votes required to override a mayoral veto,” Dorsey said. “There are other things that we can do to improve and augment our laws related to ethics and things like whistleblower protection that operationally can help us to, put more tools in our toolbox.”

Dorsey has been working on three laws related to whistleblower protection and ethics—one of which was inspired by former Baltimore City Police Commissioner Darryl De Sousa and others in the police department failing to file ethics forms.

That the mayor would think she could come back to work, Dorsey said, is “outlandish, unthinkable.”

Pending some sort of last-minute legislation from Annapolis sometime today (today is the final day of General Assembly) that would give city council the power to remove the mayor, or allow state legislatures the power to remover her themselves, resigning is purely Pugh’s decision.

“She could try to come back, but I gather that the will to work under her leadership has significantly waned, even with people who, the last two years, have directly reported to her,” Dorsey said.

“We have a council meeting coming up Monday. There is the potential that I have legislation coming up. We have hearings tomorrow around public safety in schools,” Scott said. “I have constituents that I need to call back about water bills and potholes and trash that needs to be picked up. I have to focus on the business of the city.”

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