Analysis: Baltimore Lawmakers Embrace Acting Mayor’s Agenda But Have Little Time to Work It

Acting Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. "Jack" Young (D) meets with members of the city's House delegation in Annapolis on Thursday. Photo by William F. Zorzi

On a second trip to Annapolis in his first three days as Baltimore’s acting mayor, Bernard C. “Jack” Young (D) on Thursday told a clearly frustrated group of city lawmakers in the House of Delegates that things were about to change.

While paying some deference to Mayor Catherine E. Pugh (D), who on Monday announced an indefinite leave of absence after a bout of pneumonia and amid a burgeoning scandal over her unreported sales of self-published “Healthy Holly” children’s books, Young ticked off a list of priorities he was about to tackle head on, for however long he was in charge.

In doing so, Young demonstrated a full grasp of the Baltimore’s monumental problems in need of immediate attention: The desperate need to reduce violent crime, to fix the pitted and potholed streets and public buildings in disrepair, to deal with the crumbling, vacant housing stock, and to clear out the enormous volume of ubiquitous trash.

“I told the director of public works, if I see it, and you see it, they should see it,” the East Baltimore Democrat said of the city’s workers. “Clean it up.”

Young compared his style to that of onetime Mayor William Donald Schaefer (D), the dean of the “Do It Now” school of governance.

“I just wanted to reassure you all that the city of Baltimore is … in good hands, and we’re gonna move the city forward,” he told the city House delegation. “But I can’t do it alone. I need all of your help.”

Much of that help would seem to come in the form of local aid from Annapolis. But with the budget already passed, and just three days remaining before the General Assembly adjourns its annual 90-day session midnight Monday night, it is difficult to imagine how successful that would be.

Nevertheless, Young seemed to hit all the right notes with the lawmakers, many of whom have complained, privately and bitterly, about conditions in the city and the seeming paralysis of the Pugh administration to do anything about them. Upon Pugh’s exit, Young, the Baltimore City Council president, became acting mayor, under a provision of the City Charter.

Young told the city legislators, all of them Democrats, that his top concern was the prospect of the city’s losing the Preakness Stakes– the second jewel in the horseracing’s Triple Crown – to Laurel Park and closing Pimlico Race Course in Northwest Baltimore.

Young said he had been invited to join Republican Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. in his Orioles Park at Camden Yards skybox to watch the O’s home opener again the Yankees on Thursday, and that the Pimlico matter was first on his list to talk about.

“The biggest thing on my agenda is Pimlico,” he said.

Legislation that would shift state subsidies to Laurel Park rather than Pimlico and ultimately move the Preakness from the city is pending in the General Assembly. The legislation is favored by The Stronach Group (TSG), the Canadian company that owns both Maryland horseracing tracks.

In a letter dated Wednesday, April 3, Young asked Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) to kill the legislation and, instead, “negotiate an agreement that benefits all parties involved without unduly damaging any stakeholder.”

“As you aware, Baltimore City is going through a very difficult period in its history, with Mayor Catherine Pugh taking a leave of absence while simultaneously facing serious allegations into her conduct as an elected official,” the letter begins. “I am writing to you today to ask for your leadership in preventing our city from suffering insult on top of this grave injury.”

The pending legislation “would be the final nail in the coffin of Pimlico Race Course and would lay the groundwork for [TSG] to move the Preakness from Baltimore,” Young wrote to the presiding officers.

In a related development, the Baltimore City House delegation went on record Friday afternoon opposing any attempt in the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee to amend the Laurel funding bill onto a separate bill, sponsored by Del. Michele Guyton (D-Baltimore County), dealing with capital expenditures at the horse racing track at the state fairgrounds in Timonium. They also spoke approvingly of a pending amendment to the Laurel Park legislation, to be offered by Sen. Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City), that would freeze additional funding for Laurel Park until the Baltimore City Planning Commission can conduct a study about redeveloping Pimlico and the surrounding neighborhood.

The Baltimore lawmakers appeared openly supportive of Young, with a few of them pointing out specific items in the state budget that require action by the mayor before the money can be cut loose from the governor and expended.

During the meeting Del. Curtis S. Anderson, of North Baltimore’s 43rd District, underscored the importance of getting a handle on the crime that has racked the city, saying he has seen Young at least a half-dozen funerals of residents who have been killed in the relentless surge of violence over the last few years.

“Things have gotten worse. There’s more shootings, there’s more murders,” Anderson said. “I think that would be the first priority of any mayor – and I certainly would be there to help you – to keep our streets safe, to have a plan to go into effect immediately, because right now, whatever the plan is, is not working.”

Anderson blamed violent crime for the city’s continued loss of population, as more and more residents leave town for the suburbs. The next Census, he said, will probably show a continuing downward spiral of Baltimore’s population, with it being close to 600,000 — or under.

“Many of those people are leaving because they don’t feel safe here, and fewer people are coming because they don’t feel safe,” he said. “Businesses are not relocating, people are not visiting the city, because they don’t feel safe.”

His arguments seemed to be representative of the feelings of the other city lawmakers.

“Our children are being threatened, not because of poor schools, but because they can’t even go to school in some neighborhoods for fear of being shot or hurt,” he said. “Look, I believe education should be No. 1, but right now, people have to feel safe in Baltimore, we have to stop the killing, we have to have a plan that is coordinated.”

Young did not argue with Anderson’s assessment, saying that he understood the concerns and has already met with the city’s new police commissioner, Michael S. Harrison, formerly of New Orleans, about the problems.

The acting mayor said he wanted to give Harrison the chance to get his command staff assembled. Young said he told him, “After you get your team in place … I want a crime-fighting plan on my desk, so that I can know what that plan is, to reduce the crime in Baltimore City.”

Young said that he has told Harrison that he supports him 100 percent and that he “won’t stand in the way of him,” in terms of interfering with the commissioner’s plans.

But, he added, “I asked him to get officers out of the cars and onto the streets, so they can engage people. People want their officers to say hello and speak to them.”

Young did say he was “not going to get involved with that fight” over pending legislation that would fully transfer responsibility of the Baltimore Police Department to the city from the state of Maryland.

While he said he did not really care one way or the other about the ultimate responsibility for the department – especially since the mayor appoints the commissioner and can exercise control at that level — Young did express concern over potential liability questions for Baltimore City.

He said that in light of the liability questions, he would rather “have a task force to look into the pros and cons” of the agency transfer to the city.

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