Latest tiff marks new low in relations between Mayor Brandon Scott and Baltimore City Council

There are times when politicians are capable of soaring acts of statesmanship, and there are times when they can behave like preschoolers in puddles. Yet even many 4-year-olds know there are moments when respect is due and playtime is over. Sadly, the Baltimore City Council recently failed this test with their inexplicable dismissal last week of Faith Leach, Mayor Brandon’s Scott’s highly qualified appointee as city administrator, followed by their just-as-mysterious, unanimous confirmation of her on Monday.

If anything, the whiplash-inducing performance went beyond mere childishness to the upper reaches of nonsensicality. Only in the most crass corridors of politics can a respected administrator be dismissed one day and then praised shortly thereafter — by a councilman who previously voted against her — as a “really dedicated, hardworking public servant who’s always been responsive.” Councilman Eric Costello had no trouble making this leap of incongruity. We wonder how many average Baltimoreans are capable of following this kind of thinking, if it can be so generously described as that.

Explanations of the council’s actions have been just a contradictory. One da,y it’s about the structure of the city administrator’s office, a post approved by city voters through charter amendment in 2020. The next, it has nothing to do with that. One day it’s about sending a message to the mayor; the next it’s about salaries in the city administrator’s office.

The 180-degree turn from no vote to yes came after Scott spent much of the weekend lobbying council members. Should Baltimoreans be happy to see their elected officials briefly in lockstep — or concerned over what kind of costly promises might have been made out of public view to get them on the same page for a decision that should have been a no-brainer?

What appears to be happening is that council members feel they’ve been disrespected and kept out of certain decision-making processes by the mayor, and they acted out with the most available tool at hand — denying him a key appointment. Faith Leach’s qualifications, of which she has many, were never in question.

We would point to the recent turmoil over Scott’s hasty choice to give Baltimore Gas and Electric maintenance rights to the city’s extensive underground conduit system through a contract approved last month by the Board of Estimates. The move deserved greater public scrutiny, as we’ve noted before, but there’s no question the mayor, with his control of a majority of BOE votes, had the power to make it happen. Yet council members seemed embarrassed and angry. Did they therefore choose to act out? If that’s the case, it’s a clear example of how to make a bad decision much worse for all involved.

In some venues, exaggerated performance is the norm. Improvisational theater, perhaps, or talk radio or maybe in the halls of Congress. But the stakes are far too high in Baltimore for such antics. And in case no one has noticed, the list of failures coming out of City Hall is pretty extensive, including the apparent inabilities to collect the trash, pay bills, fill vacancies (especially in the police department) or even clean up graffiti. One would think that anything unrelated to reducing gun violence — as all agree remains Baltimore’s biggest challenge — would be regarded as relatively minor matters unsuited for public tantrums.

Frankly, the council members who staged this dust-up are not the only ones who deserve to be criticized. Baltimore government is set up with strong mayoral control. There are any number of reasons for this, but it often comes down to how best to get things done when tough decisions must be made. So when the mayor fails to round up needed votes on the council, he has only himself to blame. There are tools at his disposal. We would also note that Scott’s term has been marked by a lot of turnover in key positions, which surely does not promote stability or reliability.

One more point. We are in the last half of the term, so voters are apt to evaluate anyone seeking reelection in 2024 by what happens in the months ahead. There are some modest signs of progress in key areas, like the reduction of homicides in the Western District. The current occupants of the plusher offices in City Hall would do well to keep the focus on that and other successes, and leave the sandbox to the children.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.

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