Calling for an end to “petty personal agendas,” incoming City Council President Nick Mosby gave an inaugural speech urging fellow city leaders to commit to more “collaboration and partnership.”
Just hours later, Mosby released a restructuring plan that stripped chairmanships from four incumbent councilmen, including popular progressives allied with Mayor Brandon Scott.
The new set of chairs unveiled on Thursday rewards those closest to outgoing Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young and includes four of the Council’s most conservative members – Eric Costello, Sharon Green Middleton, Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer and Robert Stokes – based on their voting records.
Online, the reaction was scathing.
Shocked community leaders and others called Mosby’s changes “backroom dealing,” a “Politburo” move and a “declaration of war on progressives and activists.”
“Talented, energetic young leaders, all of them! Removed from chair positions so that hacks can serve in their place!” one fumed.
“I literally saw those committees and was like wait, what?” said Eric Stephenson, president of the Sandtown South Neighborhood Alliance, also commenting online.
Stephenson singled out three Council members demoted by Mosby – Zeke Cohen, who lost the chairmanship of the Education and Youth Committee; Ryan Dorsey, whose Transportation Committee was simply eliminated; and Kris Burnett, who lost his position chairing both the Legislative Investigations and Health committees.
“All should be chairs on committees they’ve championed the last four years,” said Stephenson, who is a member of the Baltimore Planning Commission.
John Bullock, who like the other three was part of a wave of younger freshman members elected in 2016, also lost out. The Housing and Urban Affairs Committee he chaired was also eliminated.
Committee chairs hold considerable power over what gets heard and acted on by the Council.
Together with Council President Mosby, they possess wide discretion over the scheduling of hearings on bills introduced by members to the body.
Failure to hold a hearing on a bill, or failure to hold the hearing in a timely manner, effectively kills the legislation before it can reach the full Council for a vote.
During the past four years, the Council approved a number of high-profile measures – including ethics bills, a polystyrene foam container ban, a ban on landlords discriminating against tenants with housing vouchers, another to require the inspection of private rental housing.
“Why are we starting like this? I had hope!” – education policy analyst Khalilah Harris.
A charter amendment, curbing the power of the mayor, made it easier for the Council to overturn a veto. A clean air bill, shot down in federal court, created emissions restrictions that likely would have shut Baltimore’s trash incinerator down.
“Complete Streets” legislation, championed by Dorsey, requires specific steps to make the city more bike, transit and pedestrian-friendly.
Khalilah M. Harris said she found it demoralizing that some of the most effective lawmakers on the Council lost their leadership roles on the first day of the new term.
“Why are we starting like this? I had hope,” the Baltimore-based education policy analyst said on Twitter. “Things like this make the boring suburbs seem more appealing. I’m stunned.”
Reacting Friday to the committee changes, Councilman Burnett said the slap would not stop him from “continuing to work with all of my Council colleagues to pass progressive and impactful legislation.”
West Baltimore’s 8th District representative, a former community organizer who won passage of worker retention bills despite Mayor Young’s veto, Burnett acknowledged that he was nevertheless “absolutely disappointed with the outcome of the re-organization.”
Echoing him, Dorsey, of northeast’s 3rd District, said that he and his colleagues will “continue to do as we did last term by putting forward a broad and substantial package of legislative proposals focused on key values like economic and racial justice, government accountability and public health.”
“I’m proud of the work I’ve done,” Bullock said, vowing to continue it.
Modeled After Annapolis
Mosby defended the new configuration, saying it will make for more effective policy by creating a more democratic process.
The reorganization shrinks the number of committees from 14 – including several with only three members – to six larger ones, he pointed out in a prepared statement.
“Larger committees will allow more members to weigh in on legislation before the proposals move to the full council for consideration to better represent communities and interests across the entire city,” he said.
A former state delegate, Mosby said he “modeled the process after that of the General Assembly.”
As for the winners in Mosby’s reshuffling, three are incumbents who rarely submit legislation as chief sponsors and whose votes on other bills generally align with business interests:
• Eric Costello, whose appointment to the 11th District was engineered by then-Council President Jack Young, will head the Ways and Means Committee.
• Sharon Green Middleton, who Young wanted to succeed him as Council president when he became mayor, was given the Economic and Community Development Committee.
• Robert Stokes, another close Young ally, will chair the Education, Workforce and Youth Committee.
Last month, Middleton and Stokes stood with Mosby at his first press conference in which he tersely answered questions about issues that surfaced when he ran in the general election. They included the $45,000 tax lien for unpaid federal taxes that he said he and his wife, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, have fully paid.
Other Council changes are harder to characterize.
• Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer lost the Public Safety Committee chairmanship in the reshuffling, but was given the new Rules and Legislative Oversight committee.
• Danielle McCray, who was named to fill Scott’s 2nd District seat when he became Council president, came away with the new Health, Environment and Technology Committee.
• Mark Conway, a newcomer on the Council elected to represent the 4th District, got a plum perch – Public Safety and Government Operations.
Stokes in the Spotlight
The Stokes appointment has sparked especially harsh criticism – coming as it did at the expense of Cohen, a former teacher who successfully passed trauma-informed care legislation and has been a strong advocate for digital equity, especially during the pandemic.
Stokes, who rarely speaks at meetings and has sponsored few noteworthy bills, was “a poor choice for such a powerful position,” longtime parent-activist Melissa Schober told The Brew.
“In all my years attending school board meetings, I recall seeing him only once, in 2018, at a meeting on school safety and policing,” said Schober, a member of the Parent and Community Advisory Board.
In his new role, Stokes will be the Council’s representative to the community panel established in 2017 to recommend candidates to the mayor to fill vacancies on the school board. (Baltimore City is the only jurisdiction in the state with a wholly appointed school board.)
His “lack of engagement with parents and school communities” and “narrow understanding of school safety” would make his position on that panel “very, very awful,” Schober said.
Also singling out Stokes was Harris, who said the 12th District incumbent “shouldn’t be chairing anything based on his record.”
Seeing her criticism, Mosby initiated a dialogue with Harris on Twitter that was lengthy and, at times, contentious.
Stokes “actually has one of the strongest Council member records on workforce development, senior affairs, and R&P advocacy,” Mosby shot back, defending his Education chair pick.
Statesmanship or Score Settling?
Since Thursday’s announcement, some have tried to make sense of it by analyzing the ousted chairs’ political transgressions, like their failure to back Mosby in the primary or their open defiance of Young.
Cohen notably dissed the Democratic Party machine by backing the Green Party candidate, Franca Muller Paz, over Democrat Stokes in the 12th District.
Score settling aside, what would the Council reconfiguration mean to residents of a city struggling with poverty and inequity, the pandemic, and the continued high levels of homicides and overdoses?
Would the fact that Conway is the son of law enforcement officers play any part in his chairmanship of Public Safety?
Could the future be parsed based on how some of the new chairs have voted – for controversial development subsidies, against $15 minimum wage efforts and ethics bills?
Stokes – not backed by labor in the primary and general elections, but now chairing the committee reviewing their bills – may get “the ultimate last laugh!” – Hassan Giordano.
How will efforts to get safe consumption sites for drug users, worker protection measures and safe streets improvements fare without a Health, Labor or Transportation committee?
Some noted that organized labor in Baltimore could be in for a rugged four years. During the primary, union money went to Shannon Sneed, not to Mosby, who bested her in the Council president’s race last June.
Similarly, Stokes was scorned by labor in both the primary and general elections (they backed Phillip Westry and Muller Paz, respectively). Now, he’s been assigned by Mosby to chair the committee that will review their bills.
Stokes “will get the ultimate last laugh!” the DMV Daily’s Hassan Giordano said, pointing out this rich irony.
As for Mosby’s priorities on the issues, some said the realignment offers no clues.
“It’s impossible to know what the Council President’s legislative agenda will be based on the structure of the City Council committees and their leadership,” Dorsey said Friday.
Mosby himself sought to tamp down the furor, engaging online with critics who said his organizational re-boot was more about power and personalities.
“Media may try to frame every debate between myself and @MayorBMScott – two Black men – as a fight,” he tweeted, along with a photo of himself and Scott.
“Our independent roles of leading the legislative and executive branches of your government may put us on opposite ends of a dialogue, but make no mistake: the mayor is my partner,” Mosby asserted.
– Mark Reutter contributed to this story.