Baltimore DPW Director Mitchell to resign amid criticism from City Council

Published 1/9/2023 2:39 p.m. EST, Updated 1/9/2023 8:16 p.m. EST

DPW Director Jason Mitchell speaks at a press conference out front of the Office of Emergency Management addressing the concerns about the e.coli outbreak in West Baltimore.

Baltimore’s top public works official will step down less than two years into the job, with a tenure defined by waves of criticism over his management of the city’s troubled wastewater plants, a high-profile E. coli contamination and irregular recycling services.

Department of Public Works Director Jason Mitchell, who came to Baltimore from Oakland in May of 2021, announced his resignation Monday, citing family- and health-related concerns. His resignation is effective April 28.

Though the decision came just hours after a City Council letter threatening to call for Mitchell’s ouster, a spokesperson for Mayor Brandon Scott reiterated that the director made the decision in order to tend to family matters, not in response to those criticisms.

“I am grateful to have been able to serve the greater Baltimore community this past year and a half, while also having the chance to work alongside some of the hardest-working and dedicated public servants in the Department,” Mitchell said in a statement announcing his decision. “I personally want to thank Mayor Scott for his 100% support of DPW.”

Mitchell is the latest member of Scott’s administration to announce a departure. City Solicitor Jim Shea will leave his post next week, City Administrator Chris Shorter left to take a job in Prince William County, Virginia and Chief of Staff Michael Huber left in August. Ebony Thompson will take over as city solicitor and Chezia Cager was announced as chief of staff in November.

In his own statement, Scott said he was accepting Mitchell’s resignation with deep regret and thanked the director for overseeing and implementing “innovative plans to improve the services of which the people of Baltimore rely.”

“While we will miss his contributions to the agency, we fully support his decision to prioritize his family at this time,” the mayor said.

Since his 2021 appointment, Mitchell’s DPW has weathered intense criticism from both residents and City Council members on multiple fronts. Reports released during Mitchell’s tenure have unearthed urgent and deep-rooted environmental problems at the city’s wastewater plants at Back River and Patapsco. Mitchell has also overseen on-again, off-again weekly recycling pickup, a service that remains suspended due to worker shortages and other issues. And in September, the discovery of E. coli in the water system left tens of thousands of residents in West Baltimore and the surrounding area under a boil-water advisory for days.

All of this played out as the agency has managed severe staffing shortages made worse by the onset of the pandemic. At a City Council meeting in November, DPW officials reported a quarter of agency jobs were vacant — comprising nearly 700 unfilled positions.

Monday morning, two City Council members escalated calls to resume weekly recycling pickup, threatening to call for Mitchell’s resignation if his department did not begin to resume the service within eight weeks. Intermittent recycling services have been a source of ongoing frustration for members of Baltimore’s City Council. Councilmen Zeke Cohen and Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer’s letter renewed criticisms of city investments in “new, unproven” programs instead of basic services that have fallen off track since the start of the pandemic.

“Telling our residents that a timeline is ‘ongoing’ or that they should expect certain deliverables one year or more from now is not an acceptable response,” Cohen and Schleifer said of DPW’s approach to weekly recycling pickup.

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Reports during Mitchell’s tenure revealed major mechanical and staffing issues at the city’s two wastewater treatment plants, contributing to heavy pollution in the Patapsco and Back rivers. Last summer, the state took over operations of the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant, and a subsequent report released by the Maryland Department of the Environment said “catastrophic failures” had resulted in sewage discharges beyond permitted-levels at the site, which flows into the Chesapeake Bay.

September’s E. coli scare has also been a source of frustration and criticism during Mitchell’s time on the job. During a heated and hourslong hearing after the outbreak, council members blasted Mitchell and his department for a botched communication effort during the emergency. DPW discovered bacteria contamination at three water test sites in West Baltimore on the morning of Saturday, Sept. 3, but didn’t inform residents until it released a series of tweets and posts on the social media platform Nextdoor the following Monday. About 1,500 homes and businesses were affected by the contamination, while tens of thousands of residents in a broader area of West Baltimore and Baltimore County were told to boil their water as a precaution.

While Baltimore’s City Council has had an often combative relationship with DPW, numerous members lamented Mitchell’s decision to step down at a meeting on Monday night. In one impassioned speech, Councilman Antonio Glover, a former DPW employee, pleaded with the outgoing director to reconsider his decision.

“I understand the frustration you’re going through. Understand that this thing don’t happen overnight. Understand that you came here during a pandemic,” he said. “And I understand that the men and women, when I talk to them every night, they don’t want you to leave. They want you to stay.”

Councilwoman Odette Ramos said after the meeting that she was saddened by Mitchell’s announcement. The issues facing DPW are systemic, and while everyone wants to get recycling services back on track, “it’s not ever about one person.”

“I hope Director Mitchell is okay,” she said. “I do think he was doing his best.”

Recycling services in Baltimore have seen a series of interruptions and scale-backs since the start of the pandemic, predating Mitchell’s arrival, as labor shortages and COVID-19 outbreaks have taken a severe toll on the Department of Public Works. First, the city suspended recycling pickup completely for almost five months in 2020, before reinstating the service on a weekly basis. After Mayor Brandon Scott’s election, the city returned to weekly services, but scaled things back again to every other week earlier this year, citing similar labor problems.

Speaking with reporters after Monday’s city council meeting, Cohen and Schleifer noted that their letter stopped short of calling for Mitchell’s resignation but said it’s important to hold crucial agencies like DPW accountable and to ensure that effective leadership is in place to sustain city services.

“We were very clear and consistent that we want these basic city services to be provided by every single agency,” said Schleifer. “We want our workers to be taken care of in every single agency. And unfortunately, that hasn’t been taking place in the Department of Public Works.”

Mitchell earned $245,000 in the 2021 fiscal year, making him among the top paid city officials in Baltimore. The mayor’s office did not immediately say whether the public works official would receive a severance package with his departure.

Mitchell has also overseen improvement in the accuracy of water meters, important for correctly billing about 1.8 million city and regional customers in DPW’s water service area. Scott also credited Mitchell with slowing water rate increases, customer service improvements, the launch of a discount program and millions of dollars in improvements to the city’s aging infrastructure.