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In standoff with Pugh, City Council has no ability to remove mayor

Mayor indicated over weekend her intention to return to the job

Baltimore City Hall

Baltimore City Hall (The Daily Record/Lauren Rock)

As the Baltimore City Council appears in a standoff with Mayor Catherine Pugh about her staying in office, at least one Baltimore City Council member is considering asking voters to create a method of removing elected officials from office without the existence of a criminal conviction.

Councilman Kristerfer Burnett, according to a source with ties to the council, is expected to introduce and sponsor a bill in the next few weeks allowing voters to grant the city power to remove scandal-tainted Baltimore elected officials.

Burnett, an aide to the first-term councilman confirmed, is considering a charter amendment bill. That legislation, however, is only one of several pieces of legislation Burnett is considering, and the aide said it’s too early to discuss details of the bill.

Legislation placing a charter amendment before voters requires the approval of the City Council and mayor. A charter amendment passed by the city council would likely have no impact on the controversy involving Pugh because the measure could not be approved by voters before November 2020.

Every City Council member except City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, currently the acting mayor, signed a letter sent Monday demanding Pugh resign as investigations mount into book deals that have reaped her at least $800,000.

“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 serve as Mayor. We urge you to tender your resignation effective immediately,” the letter addressed to Pugh reads.

In response Pugh’s office issued a statement that the mayor intends to return to her role as the city’s chief executive when her health allows.

“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,”  according to the statement from Pugh’s office.

Baltimore’s City Charter currently does not grant powers to remove a mayor, or other elected officials, from office. That loophole provides politicians facing criminal charges leverage in cutting deals when facing corruption charges.

Former Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon, who resigned in 2010 as part of a plea deal involving charges surrounding the theft of gift cards, proved hanging on to office as long as possible serves as a valuable negotiating tool, Thiru Vignarajah, a former deputy attorney general and partner at DLA Piper, said. Pugh may be using that example, he said, as template for how to handle potential legal troubles.

“Unfortunately, Mayor Dixon showed public officials that remaining in office gives you a potential bargaining chip when it comes to plea negotiations. Because the mayor cannot be forced out without a conviction, the current mayor, like Dixon, can use resignation as a way to reduce or avoid jail time,” Vignarajah said. “Last time, Mayor Dixon remained in office and didn’t accept responsibility until she was convicted and at that point struck a deal with prosecutors to step down and keep her pension but avoid jail time.”

Maryland voters in 2012 backed an amendment to the state Constitution aimed at correcting the problem of politicians using their offices as a way to barter a better deal. Elected officials are now suspended from office once found guilty of felonies and certain misdemeanors and removed from office once they plead guilty or a conviction is final.

That constitutional amendment, however, doesn’t completely solve the problem of Baltimore elected officials using their office as leverage. In Pugh’s case, depending on the speed of investigations into alleged misconduct, she could hold office until December 2020, and potentially even seek re-election.

H. Mark Stichel, principal at Astrachan Gunst Thomas P.C. in Baltimore, said this raises the larger question of whether voters should be able to remove elected officials in situations involving conduct that may not rise to the level of a conviction or plea deal.

“Whatever may happen down the road with Catherine Pugh, her ability to lead the city government right now is very much compromised by the events we’ve become aware of over the last two weeks. The city really can’t afford to have its chief executive under a cloud like this,” Stichel said. (Disclosure: Stichel serves on The Daily Record’s Editorial Advisory Board.)

Pugh said she stepped aside to recover from pneumonia that recently hospitalized her, which also coincided with elected officials calling on the State Prosecutor Emmet C. Davitt and Baltimore’s Inspector General Isabel Mercedes Cumming to investigate the mayor’s financial dealings in connection with her book deals.

In recent weeks it’s been revealed Pugh accepted at least $800,000 from hospitals, nonprofit organizations and insurance companies for copies of her “Healthy Holly” children’s book series.

The payments overlapped with Pugh, previously a state senator, supporting legislation backed by the University of Maryland Medical System, which paid her $500,000 for the books while she sat on its board of directors.

Pugh, who was elected mayor in 2016, also accepted roughly $114,000 from  Kaiser Permanente. The company’s payment for books coincided with it pursuing, and winning, a roughly $48 million contract to provide health insurance to city employees.

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