A council committee voted against confirming acting City Administrator Faith Leach, a clear rebuke to Mayor Brandon Scott at an explosive hearing where most council members aired grievances directed toward the Democrat rather than his nominee.

“This vote is not about you,” Council Vice President Sharon Green Middleton told Leach. “I don’t understand this position. ... This city is in disarray.”

She was joined in her “no” vote by fellow Rules and Legislative Oversight committee members Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer, Mark Conway and Eric Costello.

Scott aide Marvin James said Leach will remain acting city administrator, while Councilwoman Odette Ramos said she will look into calling a new confirmation hearing before the entire council.

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In January, Mayor Brandon Scott announced he had chosen Leach, formerly the deputy mayor for equity, health and human services, to replace former City Administrator Chris Shorter. Per city law — introduced by Scott when he served as City Council president and overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2020 — the council must approve the mayor’s pick, who is tasked with overseeing city operations from recycling to payroll.

At a Thursday night hearing that started mundane but quickly turned combative during the vote count, most committee members described Leach as professional, responsive and effective but some questioned the performance of her predecessor, the structure of the office and how the city administrator and chief of staff work together.

The council members who voted against Leach bemoaned that the office of the city administrator had plenty of bloated salaries but had not produced enough tangible change to justify its existence.

After voting an “emphatic yes,” Ramos attributed the “no” votes to confusion over what the position is meant to do, incredulously telling the council that criticisms about the mayor or Shorter should be reserved for a different conversation.

“This committee should be voting on her, and her leadership, not the confusion of an office that we’re all still trying to navigate.”

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She and Councilman James Torrence grew visibly angry during the vote process, both noting that City Council President Nick Mosby recently instructed committee chairs not to allow members to vote virtually. Costello was not present in council chambers, citing a family emergency.

Mosby has sent a steady stream of criticism toward the mayor in recent months in the wake of Scott’s controversial conduit access agreement with the Baltimore Gas and Electric Company. The council members who voted against Leach’s confirmation are widely viewed as allies of Mosby, who appointed them all to chair influential committees.

Torrence’s trademark pensive demeanor turned fiery when it became clear Leach would not eke out a win.

“They change the rules when it suits them,” he said, storming out of the meeting. “This is election season grandstanding at best.”

Shorter served as Baltimore’s first city administrator for just under two years. His departure to take a job in Northern Virginia’s Prince William County is among the most notable in a mayoral administration riddled with cabinet exits, and his polarizing tenure among City Hall staffers hung over the proceedings.

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“At the time, people, including the council, was trying to understand what the role of this position is,” Middleton recalled of Shorter’s swift exit while questioning Leach. “I’ll come out and say it: Is this position doing what it was set out to do?”

Leach replied that the gist of the role is ensuring the trains run on time, regardless of politics. “The administrator is the leader of the government, under the vision and direction of the mayor,” she said.

She added that the public can measure her performance by the way the city delivers services to residents.

Rehashing a favorite complaint of a variety of council members, Scott allies and critics alike, Middleton said the cabinet turnover, and specifically Shorter’s departure, has led to a breakdown in communication between the council and the mayor.

Leach replied that she has already reached out to Mosby to discuss how the administrator’s office can better collaborate with the council. “This government only works well when we all work together,” she said.

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Later in the hearing, when asked by Costello how responsibilities of the chief of staff and city administrator differ, Leach stressed that chief of staff Chezia Cager is responsible for managing the mayor’s relationship with the council.

Schleifer doubled down this criticism, saying he has asked the two senior officials the same question and gotten different answers: “There hasn’t been clarity, and this is prior to you, as to who’s in charge: the city administrator or the chief of staff.”

“The mayor is in charge,” Leach replied. “This is a strong-mayor system of government.”

A cadre of nonprofit leaders testified in support of Leach before the vote, from faces familiar to most City Hall power brokers, such as Shelonda Stokes of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore to the leaders of grassroots organizations like Yolanda Pulley, president of the nonprofit People Empowered By The Struggle.

Pulley recalled meeting Leach for the first time at a rally for the city’s homeless population, where she told the official that a man who was recently in the hospital was released back onto the streets despite having COVID.

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“She did what most high officials won’t do: listen and attempt to come back with solutions,” Pulley said, telling the committee how Leach made a phone call and got the man a hotel room, an action that Pulley believes saved his life.

“There are more arrogant, nasty department heads in City Hall than kind ones,” she testified. “This is why Deputy Mayor Leach stands out.”

She added: “Fact is, no one on the streets ever heard of Christopher Shorter.”

Pulley, Stokes and dozens of City Hall aides and political authorities joined Ramos and Torrence in booing the council members who voted against Leach.

“These silly season antics are unreal, they’re disruptive,” someone shouted above the din of outcry, as Leach, dressed in a prim, white blazer, kept a straight face and quietly exited the chambers through a back door.

emily.sullivan@thebaltimorebanner.com

Emily Sullivan covers Baltimore City Hall. She joined the Banner after three years at WYPR, where she won multiple awards for her radio stories on city politics and culture. She previously reported for NPR’s national airwaves, focusing on business news and breaking news. 

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