Mayor Brandon Scott tapped a former top City Hall official Tuesday to return to Baltimore and head the city’s Department of Public Works, bringing new leadership to an agency that in recent years has navigated numerous environmental and public relations crises.

Khalil Zaied comes to Baltimore from Champaign, Illinois, a city of around 89,000, where he recently stepped down as director of the public works department. He will take over the Baltimore City Department of Public Works in an acting capacity next week and will need City Council approval to become the agency’s permanent head.

Before going to Illinois, Zaied worked in the private sector and spent almost two decades in Baltimore government, rising to the top of two agencies and serving as deputy mayor under former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake for five years.

If confirmed, Zaied would take over a role that has been filled in an interim capacity since former Director Jason Mitchell resigned last year amid City Council pressure. Interim Director Richard Luna has led the agency since Mitchell’s resignation in July. Last week, Luna and Scott rolled out the return of weekly curbside recycling pickup, restoring a city service that has become a lighting rod for City Council criticism as the public works department struggled to get back up to speed in the wake of the pandemic.

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In a statement, Scott touted the return of weekly recycling as “a new era” for the Department of Public Works, calling it “a perfect time to welcome a tested and transformational leader” like Zaied.

“Mr. Zaied is absolutely the right public works leader for this time in our city’s history,” said the first-term mayor, who is up for reelection in May’s Democratic primary. “I am excited to welcome him back to Baltimore, and look forward to the difference he’ll make in our residents’ lives.”

Before taking over the public works department in Champaign, Illinois, Zaied spent five years as vice president for special projects with the Maryland-based, international engineering firm KCI Technologies and also worked as the deputy city manager for public works and transportation for El Paso, Texas.

Zaied’s tenure as a top official in Baltimore was not without controversy.

While serving as deputy mayor to Rawlings-Blake, the Baltimore Sun found that Zaied collected more $14,000 in homestead tax credits for a rental property he owned in Butchers Hill. Under Maryland law, the homestead tax credit is intended only for owner-occupied homes. The state realized the issue and billed Zaied for more than $5,000 to claw back a year of the tax credit.

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Zaied only paid the money back after he was asked about it by a Baltimore Sun reporter, according to a 2013 article by the newspaper. He said at the time that he wasn’t aware that he had been receiving the 50% tax break on his rental property and also paid back the remaining money from the two additional years he had improperly received the credit.

Scott spokesman Bryan Doherty called the issue “a mistake that he [Zaied] appropriately addressed at the time.” Zaied no longer owns the Butchers Hill property, Doherty said.

In addition to serving as deputy mayor, Zaied has also led the Department of General Services and Department of Transportation in Baltimore.

He will take over an agency that has weathered a series of crises since the start of the pandemic. In September of 2022, an E. coli scare in the water system left tens of thousands of residents in West Baltimore and surrounding areas under a boil-water advisory for days. Reports released during Mitchell’s tenure at the Department of Public Works unearthed extensive staffing and maintenance problems at the city’s two wastewater treatment plants, contributing to sewage pollution flowing into the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Until last week, the city’s weekly recycling pickup had operated on an on-again, off-again basis since the start of the pandemic — scaled-back service that frequently drew the ire of City Council members during Mitchell’s time at the helm.

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Luna will remain with the Department of Public Works, returning to his prior post as deputy director for the agency. In addition to overseeing the return of weekly recycling services in Baltimore, Luna led the agency as it implemented salary increases to combat widespread vacancies and the completion of two projects to bury reservoir water tanks — long-delayed projects required under federal regulations.

Meanwhile, the agency hired Mitchell, its former director, last year to come back on board as a contractor, paid at $125 an hour. His contract caps his work at 576 hours or $72,000 in compensation.

Zaied holds a bachelor degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Maryland.

The City Hall veteran called it “an honor of a lifetime” to return to Baltimore.

“Like Mayor Scott, I am committed to building cleaner, healthier communities and utilizing every tool at the city’s disposal to reduce waste, improve air and water quality and provide Baltimoreans with dependable routine services,” Zaied said in a statement.

Adam Willis covers city government for The Banner, including the impacts of the large COVID-19 stimulus package that Baltimore received from the federal government.

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