Dust is still settling in City Hall following a remarkable showdown Wednesday, in which disagreements over Mayor Brandon Scott’s controversial deal with Baltimore Gas & Electric exposed fault lines among some of the city’s top political players.
The deal with BGE has fueled heated exchanges between the first-term Democrat and other elected officials in recent weeks. But the tenor of disagreement reached a new level Wednesday, when the administration forced the contract through the city’s spending board despite a boycott by City Council President Nick Mosby and Comptroller Bill Henry. Mosby and Henry insist the vote taken in their absence was illegitimate.
The contract at issue would allow BGE, a private utility, to receive access to the city-owned underground conduit by paying for repairs to the network instead of directly paying city fees, terms that have drawn backlash in some corners of city government in light of last year’s citywide vote barring the sale or privatization of the system.
Here’s three things we learned this week from the conduit fight.
Comptroller Bill Henry and City Council President Nick Mosby’s unlikely partnership
Mosby and Henry are not known for being allies. But the pair were in cahoots on Wednesday morning, united for their first public partnership in a protest against the mayor.
The Democrats took the dramatic step of not attending the Board of Estimates meeting together in order to prevent a quorum, assuming that the mayor would not push ahead with the contract.
The two politicos have long known each other before becoming citywide elected officials in 2020, but have never joined forces in such a stark way.
Like then-City Council President Scott and former Mayor Jack Young, Mosby has maintained the traditional political posturing against the mayor that so many council presidents have engaged in before him. He has fiercely criticized the mayor’s allocation of hundreds of millions of dollars in federal stimulus money, and framed his unsuccessful attempt to bring back the Dollar House program as necessary in an administration without significant housing policy.
The comptroller’s criticism of Scott has been less discernible. The two were frequent allies when both served on the City Council, and Henry has frequently approached the administration asking to take problems off their plate. Such conversations have resulted in Baltimore’s troubled vendor payment duties moving from the mayor and to the comptroller.
Their first partnership — and particularly, Henry’s strongest rebuke to date of the mayor — has raised eyebrows among Baltimore’s political elite.
“I think that the mayor’s actions are so unprecedented that it calls for us to publicly stand in unity and work together,” Mosby said in an interview.
Their partnership against the mayor’s conduit deal will continue. On Friday morning, the pair is due to speak to the city’s state Senate delegation about the deal.
Scott, meanwhile, has insisted that detractors of the deal are intentionally mischaracterizing it.
“You and several of your colleagues are recycling the same disinformation that has been debunked time and time again,” he wrote in a letter to Mosby reviewed by The Banner. “To argue at this point that the agreement has not been scrutinized is untethered from reality.”
If the two other citywide elected officials continue to publicly antagonize the mayor, it will not help Scott win over those already having doubts about his leadership.
Critics get vocal as 2024’s election cycle nears
Over the last few months, private murmurs of dissatisfaction with the mayor have become increasingly prevalent in city political circles — including among public allies who endorsed him in the 2020 Democratic primary — and now a few prominent politicos are making their frustrations known.
A few hours after Scott’s stand at the Board of Estimates, state Sen. Mary Washington declared that enough was enough in a forceful Twitter thread.
“I’m officially done with watching this Mayor destroy any credibility left in the Office of the Mayor of Baltimore City!!” she wrote, kicking off a series of posts that took aim not only at his handling of the BGE contract, but of the persistent vacancies and quick departures that have come to characterize the administration.
“The Mayor’s style of management has relegated strong senior staff to cleaning up after the debacle of the week, demotion to subordinate roles, or catching the first train out of town. The city government is clearly fractured,” she wrote.
Washington, a progressive Democrat who represents North Baltimore, briefly ran against Scott in the 2020 mayoral primary before dropping out as the COVID-19 pandemic first struck Maryland.
Mayor Scott was dismissive of Washington’s posts during a press gaggle in Annapolis, telling reporters that she was more interested in clout-chasing than working with him.
“The senator unfortunately is misinformed severely,” he said. “I wished the senator would have done what most leaders do, and that’s pick up the phone.”
As a state lawmaker, Washington occupies a relatively safe perch from which to criticize the mayor. But over the last week, several City Council members, who under Baltimore’s strong-mayor system are beholden to Scott to get their legislation funded, offered some of the sharpest criticism of him to date.
At a marathon hearing into the conduit deal last week, Council Vice President Sharon Green Middleton, the council’s longest-serving member, vented about Scott’s lack of communication with other elected leaders.
For two years — Scott’s tenure thus far — the council has been disrespected, she said, shaking her head with visible frustration. She cited receiving policy changes and updates from the administration at the “last minute” and a lack of interest from the administration in working together with the council.
“To me, it shows that you’re hiding something,” she said. “How can we trust what you say?”
Councilman Zeke Cohen, who endorsed the mayor in the Democratic primary, joined the criticism on Thursday, issuing a public statement that recalled the moment when then-City Council President Scott warned of the potential negative impact that a spending board stacked in favor of the mayor held for Baltimore.
“He was right,” Cohen said. “Key decisions about city finances should never be controlled by a single elected official. Public input is essential. Disagreement and debate lead to deeper truths and better outcomes.”
The slew of public criticism comes more than halfway into Scott’s tenure — and as the 2024 election season quietly approaches. Behind the scenes, politicos and their aides are privately assessing which candidates might be viable opponents against Scott. Although no major candidates have officially thrown their name in the hat, they’re likely to do so relatively soon; in deep-blue Baltimore, Democratic primaries are tantamount to victory in the general election.
The mayor acknowledged as much in Annapolis on Thursday afternoon.
“This is political silly season and folks are going to say politically silly things,” he said.
Cohen, who has formed an exploratory committee for a City Council president run in 2024, announced that he plans on introducing legislation to reform or abolish the Board of Estimates. Doing so would likely require changes to Baltimore’s charter, which must be approved by city voters.
Strong mayor, strongarms
But the conduit fight also contradicted a major complaint about Scott: that he’s indecisive. There was never any doubt the conduit deal was going to get through Baltimore’s mayor-controlled spending board eventually, but Scott’s approach this week was a striking show of political muscle. It may have also been a shrewd use of the tools afforded by the city’s strong-mayor system.
In mid-January, Scott’s legal team presented a set of mundane-seeming rule changes to the Board of Estimates changing members’ ability to delay spending decisions.
The power to defer a vote is one of few tools available to the board’s two nonadministration members, the council president and comptroller, and Mosby denounced the changes as an unnecessary “power grab” by the Scott administration, even as the proposal cleared the board easily.
But after the city’s backroom dealings with BGE were leaked to The Baltimore Brew, it took less than a month for the new rules to make a difference.
Mosby and Henry said Wednesday that boycotting the scheduled vote on the BGE contract was their only option after learning that the mayor’s administration planned to override their request to delay a vote, leaning on the new rules to block a deferral.
Outside City Hall after the vote, Mosby called attention to the recent rule changes, accusing the administration of “proactively” changing them in order to pave the way for the conduit contract.
The action taken Wednesday by the Board of Estimates “shows that not only is the Scott administration fine with circumventing what voters have said and placing the interests of private industries above what’s best for its constituents,” Mosby said, “but Mayor Scott also appears to be fine with conducting business in a manner that abuses the power” he was entrusted with by his constituents.
In a statement, Scott spokeswoman Jessica Dortch pushed back on the idea that the administration changed the board rules in anticipation of Wednesday’s vote.
Under both the old and new rules — which got Henry’s vote in January — deferrals required majority support, she said. “The BOE rules were applied as they were written, and the majority of the Board voted to approve the conduit agreement, as the rules and Charter clearly allow.”
The Scott administration also downplayed the new rules after Wednesday’s vote. Acting City Solicitor Ebony Thompson emphasized that the board’s decision to proceed with just three of its five members present was grounded in long-established board rules.
“They can try to challenge it,” she said. “We believe that we will be victorious in moving forward and that this will count.”
The comptroller argued that the new rules invoked by the mayor to avoid a deferral on Wednesday aren’t even on the books yet. After the board approved the rules in January, the comptroller’s office realized that additional procedural steps, like a requisite 30-day public comment period, were ignored, Henry said.
When the comptroller cast his vote in favor of the rule changes in January, he said he was entrusting the mayor to allow more time on spending decisions when more information is needed. He stood by that position Wednesday.
If the mayor isn’t willing to defer to his colleagues when they think more time is needed, he said, “then the mayor is gonna have to live with that in terms of how the people of Baltimore see that kind of behavior.”
The Baltimore Banner’s Pamela Wood contributed to this article.