Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young and his supporters like to say he is “plainspoken,” but when asked some point-blank questions on WYPR 88.1 this week, his answers were roundabout, often defensive and, at times, downright confusing.
The mayor was asked, for instance, about a City Council bill sitting on his desk that prohibits Baltimore from requiring the victims of police brutality to sign a non-disparagement agreement (NDA) in order to receive a cash settlement.
At first, he answered by describing a policy he had instituted at the Board of Estimates – namely that “anybody who have sued the city can come [to the meeting] and speak about anything about their case.”
So far, that offer has not persuaded a single claimant to show up and share their story.
Nor has it impressed the ACLU of Maryland, which persuaded a federal appeals court to strike down the city’s so-called “gag orders” as unconstitutional last July and now calls on the mayor to sign the bill.
Will Young sign, veto or allow the legislation to take effect without his signature, host Tom Hall wanted to know.
“The law department says the bill is illegal, so I can’t sign it,” Young said, alluding to City Solicitor Andre Davis’ vigorous opposition to the ACLU lawsuit, filed in 2017 on behalf of brutality victim Ashley Overbey Underwood and this website, Baltimore Brew.
“That’s all I’m gonna say”
Young didn’t leave at that. He went on to tell listeners that he is opposed to gag orders despite the fact that he doesn’t plan to sign the bill that would ban them.
“I don’t think nobody should have a gag order,” the mayor said. “I’m in the process of fixing that right now.”
“Via executive order rather than statute?” Hall pressed.
“I’m gonna fix it!” Young said.
“How?” Hall asked.
“I’m gonna fix it,” Young repeated. “That’s all I’m gonna say.”
“I don’t know what’s in it”
Young’s remarks on another high-profile piece of legislation also had some wondering what he had just said.
Hall asked about the Water Accountability and Equity Act, a bill that Young had himself introduced into the Council when he was its president.
Would he sign the bill, which sets up a system that discounts water rates to low-income families?
“Yes, I’m going to sign it, but I do have some problems with it,” he said, adding that the current version of the bill is “not really what I was doing with it.”
“Explain what’s in the bill and what you disagree with,” Hall said.
“I don’t know what’s in it,” Young answered.
It was a strange statement for an elected official – and 2020 mayoral candidate – whose staff has been following the issue closely.
After Young had introduced the bill last year with advocates by his side, the measure languished in committee amid opposition from Public Works Director Rudy Chow, who pushed instead a relief program that advocates said was weaker.
Hall: “Explain what’s in the bill and what you disagree with.”
Young: “I don’t know what’s in it.”
Young acknowledged yesterday that he had migrated to Chow’s side of the issue and favored DPW’s “H2O Assists” and other programs Chow had introduced in the form of amendments.
But none of the amendments was adopted by the Council at a dramatic September 26 hearing after advocates said they would gut the measure.
“I can’t speak to something I haven’t seen”
Still, Hall sought to draw out the mayor on what in the bill he took issue with. Was it the “tiered billing system?”
“You know, I’m not in the Council anymore,” Young replied. “I haven’t seen the bill. I haven’t seen none of the amendments that was put up by the Council. And I’m waiting to see it. So I can’t speak to something I haven’t seen yet.”
Hall then asked a procedural question. Since the Council had approved the bill and sent it to the mayor’s ‘s office, “it’s not going to go back to the Council for further amendments”?
“No,” Young said, adding after a pause, “but I’m hoping that the Council [will] do its due diligence and take into consideration some of the things I suggested.”
Here is where the matter was likely confusing to Hall, along with 99% of his listeners.
How could Young hope to make changes to a bill that had already passed “3rd reader,” traditionally the last stop before legislation goes to the mayor’s desk?
It turns out that, due to what is being described as a procedural mistake (namely some amendments were improperly moved at the Council’s September 28 meeting), the November 4 vote did not count as a “final passage” vote.
The final final passage vote is now scheduled to take place on November 18.
“I have no idea what he was talking about,” said Rianna Eckel senior organizer for Food & Water Watch.
Young’s remarks on the radio puzzled activists who have been pushing the Council for years to provide relief for low-income residents and now figured they had passed the finish line.
“I have no idea what he was talking about,” said Rianna Eckel, senior organizer for Food & Water Watch.
“There’s no more plans for further amendments,” said Eckel, adding that she hadn’t heard of any 11th hour efforts by the administration to alter it substantively.
“We’ve been in a productive dialogue with [Young’s] office about the bill,” Eckel said. “Maybe he was out of the loop on that.”
What Does the Mayor Say?
Another set of mixed messages came on the subject of the “surveillance plane.” That’s a proposed crime-fighting program being offered by an Ohio-based company, at an annual cost of $1.6 million a year, to be initially picked up by a Texas philanthropist.
In 2016, Persistent Surveillance Systems flew a small Cessna airplane over the city, collecting and storing hundreds of hours of footage from neighborhoods. The company suspended its efforts after the secret flights prompted outrage, but company officials have recently returned to push the idea.
Some, including business leaders of the Greater Baltimore Committee, have supported the surveillance plane as a way to combat crime. But others, including the ACLU, have condemned the flights as ineffective and a threat to civil liberties.
What did the mayor think?
He answered several ways:
“Right now, they can fly if they want to,” he first said. “No one stops them from flying.”
“If they want to share the data with us, we will look at that data,” he also said.
After Hall noted that “you could disallow them, could you not?” Young deflected the question by answering, “I mean the people of Baltimore have to make that decision, whether they want that plane to fly. At the moment, I’m not convinced.”
Listen to the full interview (along with listener call-in) here:
• Midday Newsmaker: Baltimore City Mayor Jack Young. Interview with Tom Hall.