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Baltimore’s powerful mayor resigned amid corruption allegations. Three activists ask if the city charter can be amended to limit mayoral power and create a more just city

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Note: Nabeehah Azeez is the Operations director at No Boundaries Coalition.

JAISAL NOOR Welcome to The Real News. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore. In breaking news, embattled Baltimore Mayor, Catherine Pugh, has resigned.

STEVE SILVERMAN, MAYOR’S ATTORNEY The following is Mayor Pugh’s statement. “Today I am submitting my written resignation to the Baltimore City Council. I am sorry for the harm that I have caused to the image of the City of Baltimore and the credibility of the office of the mayor. Baltimore deserves a mayor who can move our great city forward.

JAISAL NOOR Pugh, a Democrat, is facing allegations of corruption for receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars from corporations doing business with the city for her Healthy Holly children’s books. Last week, the FBI and IRS raided City Hall and her home. So what comes next? Baltimore doesn’t just face a crisis in leadership. The city is rife with inequality and it’s considered one of America’s deadliest cities. Is this an opportunity to build a better Baltimore? Joining me to discuss this, are three guests. Nabeehah Azeez, until two weeks ago, was the Lead Organizer on Communities United’s campaign around Better Budget Baltimore. Amanda DeStefano is a Leadership Organizer with United Workers. She’s worked on two ballot initiatives to establish and fund an affordable housing trust fund in Baltimore. And Peter Sabonis is the Director of Legal Strategies at the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative and works with community groups to promote dignity, and economic and social rights. Thank you all for joining us today.

PANEL Thank you. Thanks for having me. Thanks.

JAISAL NOOR So let’s start with this breaking news. After a month of being on a leave of absence, Mayor Catherine Pugh just a couple hours ago now, resigned from office. She submitted her resignation. She’s done. What was your reaction to that? Let’s quickly talk about what her legacy is and what her track record was in office. I know one of the things that we covered closely was the fact that one of her first moves was vetoing a minimum wage bill that she promised to support in office.

NABEEHAH AZEEZ Well, I know a lot of people are celebrating and I have a hard time celebrating how this outcome, how this situation all played out. I think that the pay-to-play politics is something that is pretty common in Baltimore City government and it’s unfortunate that Mayor Pugh, Former Mayor Pugh, as a black woman is the person who is now being the poster child for it when we know it happens all the time. So I don’t want to celebrate her fall from grace, but I am trying to focus on looking forward to what this means for Baltimore and the things that we can get accomplished with the new Mayor Jack Young.

PETER SABONIS It is certainly symptomatic of a system that at its root, has a number of issues— you referred to equity issues in this city. I think she is the product of a campaign finance system, of a government system, that as you mentioned rewards pay-to-play, that requires money every step of the way, and really requires, at least at this point in time, such a tight relationship with the private sector that at times it’s indistinguishable between the public and the private sector. The University of Maryland was once a public hospital and now it’s private and it’s a bit fitting in this time of privatization, that this should take a government official down.

JAISAL NOOR So there’s already been calls for reforming Baltimore’s strong mayor system. The mayor in Baltimore has some of the strongest powers out of any similar city in the whole country. So on Monday, the city council proposed four changes to the city charter including giving themselves the power to add money to the budget, which currently the mayor controls, and lowering the number of votes needed to override a mayor’s veto. Currently, it’s 12 of 15 members; they want to change it to 10. I asked Councilman Bill Henry about this and two reforms that are currently not on the table, which include participatory budgeting and changes to the Board of Estimate, which is the city’s spending board. This was Bill Henry.

COUNCILMAN BILL HENRY The importance of making certain that we have lots of community buy-in in any type of charter change. And so, that’s one of the reasons why we’re going to be encouraging a year-long series of conversations about this. …My expectation would be that if this charter amendment passes and the council actually has the ability to move money around in the budget, one of the things that we would have the option to do is create a fund that could be then further distributed in a participatory budgeting fashion. So I do know that at least one, possibly two council people, are working on charter amendments related to the Board of Estimates. I know that that’s where this gets a little bit trickier because once you start dealing with the competition or the powers of the Board of Estimates, then you really are starting to get into the fundamentals of the strong mayor system.

JAISAL NOOR So we just covered a lot of ground there. Let’s go through it one-by-one. So one of the major reforms that not for the first time has been brought up, is the power of the mayor to set the entire city budget. Right now, policing gets over $500 million which as we know, is more than it goes to schools, to youth, and health services. That is a major issue that I know, Nabeehah, you have worked on through your work at Communities United. Talk about why you picked up this fight back in 2018.

NABEEHAH AZEEZ So there was a coalition of several different groups who were interested in coming together and trying to make a change in our budget. Communities United was particularly interested in it because we have been working with a report called The Freedom to Thrive Report that was written by our national affiliate, the Center for Popular Democracy. It was co-written also with BYP100 and the Law for Black Lives. And what this report said was in 2017, Baltimore City outpaced several other similarly-sized cities in their per capita police spending. This is something that we were not happy to be leading the pack in police spending at the same time when we were fighting to get funding for our schools. So Communities United, when we all came together, we thought that it was really something that was important for us to try to take the lead on.

JAISAL NOOR And so, Baltimore’s spending all this money on policing. It doesn’t seem like they’re getting much results from their priorities right now because we’re one of the country’s most dangerous cities, according to a number of statistics and reports.

NABEEHAH AZEEZ Absolutely. And so, right now our police spending— for every dollar that we spend on policing, we’re spending about 51 cents on Baltimore City Public Schools, 15 cents on the Department of Housing and Community Development, 13 cents on Human Services, 6 cents on the Office of Unemployment Development, and a penny on substance use disorders and mental health from the Health Department. This part is especially important because we do have a very high homicide rate. In 2017, we had 343 homicides. But in the same year, we had 761 people die from drug or alcohol-related deaths or overdoses. So we have twice as many overdoses as we do homicides, but for every dollar we’re spending on policing, we’re only spending a penny to come up with solutions to the opioid epidemic.

JAISAL NOOR And so, if this charter amendment goes through, the council has more power, the idea is that they could change some of the priorities. It’s important for folks to know that Eric Costello, who chairs the committee in which the charter reforms will go through has said, he likely won’t hold hearings until June of 2020. Peter, can you talk about why this is significant because the council is one way we can have reforms to the charter, but there is another way as well. Talk about the power that people have here to change the charter.

PETER SABONIS That’s right. Any charter amendment needs to go to the voters. But there are two ways it could go to the voters. One is a city council bill, which Bill Henry and the other councilors were referring to. And the other way is a citizen petition. And that citizen petition really requires at least 10,000 signatures by registered voters in the city that express a desire to change the charter, articulate language that amends the charter, and then there’s a summary of the language that actually is put on the petition so that every individual who signs a petition, can review the summary that the voters will see. But really, it involves a-— let’s just put it this way— I was interested that Bill Henry said, “we want a process.” I was involved with the Better Budget process and that was a coalition in which we developed over various versions of a budget. We injected a purpose clause in the budget. We don’t have a purpose clause that talked about racial and economic equity. We injected a public process in this language etc. It’s interesting that someone who is supposedly devoted to a process, a long process, quickly just adopts the language that amends the charter in a way that doesn’t express public participation, doesn’t express racial and economic equity, doesn’t even express a purpose to the budget— all things that we as citizens were able to hash out and brainstorm about before we settled on a final version. But this is something that we could still do.

JAISAL NOOR Yeah. I think a lot of people are talking about that right now, the fact that the people don’t need the city council or anyone else. They don’t need permission. They can go ahead. They can get those 10,000 signatures. They can make significant changes to how this city is run, and really whose interests it’s run for. So Amanda, you worked as an organizer on two successful campaigns around affordable housing in the city. Talk about what your experience was, what the challenges were, and how you were able to pull this off.

AMANDA DESTEFANO Sure. So I think that the idea that Councilman Castello raised of not hearing these reform bills until the summer of next year in 2020, really—

JAISAL NOOR To be on the ballot in November.

AMANDA DESTEFANO Exactly. Really poses a question for anybody who would be doing a ballot initiative around these same issues. One of the things that we learned in the first ballot initiative in 2016 to establish the affordable housing trust fund was that, you need to start as early and as soon as possible. Getting 10,000 signatures requires you to talk to at least 50,000 people just being conservative. And so, starting early is super, super important. And also, just having a really strong canvassing team, having folks that deeply understand what the change is, and then are able to explain it is very important. In Baltimore as we’re petitioning, a lot of folks— confidence is very low. When you talk about reforming government, there are folks that have seen lots and lots of promises and ideas come by, and execution has often not followed in the way that people would hope. And so, I think that another challenge that’s really important as you’re pursuing a ballot initiative is to have your summary and have your rap for your canvassers just put in the most simple terms possible, why is this reform important and what will it do for you as a citizen of Baltimore. Just for an example when we started— actually in both ballot initiatives, I think our first question was, are you registered to vote in Baltimore City? Because unfortunately if you’re not, the canvasser has to just quickly move on to the next person and speed is really important in your conversations as well. But the second question for us was just, do you think we should have more affordable housing in Baltimore? And so, just a very brief question really helps as far as when you’re speaking with folks about petitions. I think having something that’s very concise is really useful. The other, I guess, challenge really is just the hot, humid summer heat of Baltimore City. It’s hard for people to be out in the weather, in crowded places, talking to lots and lots of people for hours at a time. So really being reasonable and setting expectations for canvassers, for volunteers even, that are working on ballot initiatives and making sure that people are staying hydrated, taking good care of themselves.

JAISAL NOOR It gets hot. It gets hot in the summer. It’s humid.

AMANDA DESTEFANO It’s hard. It’s hard, hard work. And so, yeah. I think that it’s super important in a democracy. The very, very best way for change to happen is for voters, for the people, to decide and that takes a lot of work. That’s not something that comes easily.

JAISAL NOOR And so, Nabeehah, you worked on this Better Budget campaign—


JAISAL NOOR In 2018. You weren’t able to get the 10,000 signatures to get on the ballot and there was a lot of factors in play here. What did you have to deal with? You got about 7,000 so you were close, but you didn’t quite get 10,000. Talk about what the challenges were.

NABEEHAH AZEEZ So there were multiple ballot initiatives that were taking place. And so, some people were saying we already signed it because the affordable housing trust fund was doing their second position as well. We started pretty late.

JAISAL NOOR When did you start?

NABEEHAH AZEEZ So when we started, we were about 10 weeks out from our deadline. So we didn’t have as much time as we would have liked. The weather was horrible that summer. In addition to the heat, we had a lot of rain. Artscape, which should have been primetime for collecting signatures, it rained pretty much all of Artscape last year. And I guess the biggest thing is, this was our first time doing it. It was my first time doing it, and that’s a big factor. So there’s a learning curve with everything. We got a lot of guidance from Amanda, but they were working on their ballot initiative as well. So she gave us some really great tips, but I think everything takes practice, and it was a positive experience. No doubt.

JAISAL NOOR And Peter, so you’ve consulted with different groups that are doing this. You’ve worked on some of the campaigns. What else do people need to know that are interested in this, and maybe just learning about the fact that people can make serious change in the city, and the clock is already ticking on making this happen?

PETER SABONIS Yes. I worked on both of these and the one point that I would add is that the petitions have to be in by mid-August. So that’s when we’re talking, as early as possible. That’s the end of it. The other piece that’s interesting as a lawyer, there’s an interesting series of court decisions on charter amendments. It really— the language. One was a rent control attempt in Baltimore, which passed in the 70s. It was taken to court, it was challenged, and the court nullified the people’s amendment because the amendment looked too much like a piece of legislation passed by the city council. And what the court said was, the people can change the form and structure of government, but the people cannot take away the legislative body’s power to legislate, and what you’re doing here with this rent control budget petition-— which was basically identical to the rent control legislation that had failed in the city council. It was then just put into the charter. The court said that looks, acts, smells like legislation and you can do a charter amendment, but you have to respect the separation of powers. So the people have a role, but the people’s role is not the legislative role. So you have to respect the city council and you have to limit your charter amendment to the form and structure. We talked actually about how far you can go, etc. All I can tell you is there’s not a bright line, and at times I think in the past, even with the housing trust fund, there were some of us who felt like, I think we went over the line here. But if no one challenges it, there’s not a problem. That is something that you have to watch out for if you’re pushing something that has political forces who can litigate and challenge you.

JAISAL NOOR So we were talking off-camera about how there might even be competing ballot initiatives— one from the city council and perhaps even a more progressive ballot initiative, maybe around budgeting. Maybe the city council proposes they have more control of the budgeting, but people come together and say we want participatory budgeting. To have that in the charter, you’re gonna have potentially competing ballot initiatives. Can you also talk about the importance of educating people and organizing people to make that decision on the ballot in November 2020?

NABEEHAH AZEEZ Well the first thing that I want to say is, if somebody comes to you with a ballot initiative and is asking for your signature, I think you should always sign because when you sign a petition, you’re not saying that you supported it or you oppose it. What you’re saying is, you want an opportunity to participate in the democratic process. You want to get it on the ballot, and then you can make your decision when election season comes around. So that’s the first thing. But with anything, voters have to make sure they are educated on the issues, that the people who might have more insight to be able to tell what the differences are. And at the end of the day, voters have to make the decision that’s going to be in their best interest. That’s how our process works best.

JAISAL NOOR I personally would be very careful. I think I personally would be really careful about what I signed because who knows what people are trying to get out there or whatever, but talk about why you think everyone should sign a ballot initiative to get it on the ballot and let the voters decide.

AMANDA DESTEFANO So I think obviously, if someone is giving you a piece of paper and asking you to sign it, you should read it first. But that’s why the summary on ballot initiatives are super important. They’re usually three or four bullet points and so like Nabeehah said, it’s really important though that you’re not agreeing in writing at that time that this should happen. You’re simply agreeing that the voters get to decide on this. And what I think would be a really big challenge that I’ve never seen before is, if there were a ballot initiative that came from the council as well as a ballot initiative that came from the people to do a charter amendment on a similar subject, a similar reform, usually in my experience with the two ballot initiatives that we’ve done, the heaviest lift is really getting those 10,000 signatures. And once it’s on the ballot, we’ve had signs for a Question J, which was creating the affordable housing trust fund, and of course we had people doing some electioneering at the polls. But I think that level of education for voters would be something that would bring entirely new challenges.

JAISAL NOOR Okay. Well I want to— do you have something?

PETER SABONIS Oh I was just going to point out that from this point in August where you deliver the petitions to November, you’re entering into a new phase, which is basically your campaign phase. So as Amanda alluded to, you could have a campaign where you have two competing ballot initiatives and you are actually emphasizing the people’s budget amendment rather than the council’s budget amendment, or various ways of presenting your campaign in that short window.

JAISAL NOOR Okay. Well I want to thank you all for joining us in this important discussion. Amana DeStefano with United Workers worked on two successful campaigns around the affordable housing trust fund. Nabeehah Azeez, you worked on the Communities United campaign to help make the budget more fair in Baltimore. And Peter Sabonis, longtime attorney and activist that’s worked on many of these campaigns, and obviously have a lot of knowledge about this stuff. So thank you. Thank you all for joining us.

PANEL Thanks for having us. Thank you.

JAISAL NOOR And thank you for joining us at The Real News Network and come to our event at Ida B.’s Table. At 6PM on Tuesday, we’ll talk more about these issues and what a ballot fight looks like, what the city could look like, if the people had more power and more control over this city’s future in this very key moment for the future of Baltimore City. Thank you so much for joining us.

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Jaisal is currently the Democracy Initiative Manager at the Solutions Journalism Network and is a former TRNN host, producer, and reporter. He mainly grew up in the Baltimore area and studied modern history at the University of Maryland, College Park. Before joining TRNN, he contributed print, radio, and TV reports to Free Speech Radio News, Democracy Now! and The Indypendent. Jaisal's mother has taught in the Baltimore City Public School system for the past 25 years. Follow him on Twitter @jaisalnoor.