Inside City Hall
Is Baltimore’s public works director angling for the job he resigned from?
DPW watchers are pondering the meaning of Jason Mitchell’s now extended tenure, and the mayor’s remarks about “looking forward to continuing to work with him”
Above: Jason Mitchell announced his resignation on January 9. (Brew file photo)
Mayor Brandon Scott’s announcement yesterday that Jason W. Mitchell has agreed to stay on as public works director until the end of June has reignited a question that’s been tossed around for awhile:
Is Mitchell, who announced his resignation three months ago, really going to leave?
Rather than departing in April, as planned, Mitchell will head the city’s largest department, with 1,700 employees and a $630 million annual budget, until June 30 in order to handle “agency priorities that require his leadership,” Scott said.
“Director Mitchell will focus on important initiatives,” the mayor explained, “such as managing the Baltimore City consent decree negotiations, developing a comprehensive solid waste management strategy and supporting the agency during the search for a new director.”
The statement went on to say that “Mayor Scott acknowledges Director Mitchell’s positive impact on DPW and looks forward to continuing to work with him” – wording that made some DPW watchers wonder who is running the show, and who has checked out.
Especially so when a key facility at DPW’s Back River sewage plant – critical to meeting the aforementioned consent decree – blew up last week.
At the same time, Yosef Kebede, head of the water bureau and boss of Back River, decided to quit, The Brew reported, leaving the crippled plant without a top manager.
If Mitchell was worried about these developments, he didn’t express any doubt about his agency’s capabilities in a press release.
“Our team is working diligently to assist” in the clean up of the fire-ravaged building and was looking forward to its future reopening, he said, without mentioning the loss of the team’s leader.
Who is running the show, and who has checked out?
Since announcing his resignation on January 9, then declaring in leaked remarks at a staff meeting that he no longer felt “enslaved” to “this agency, this city,” Mitchell has promoted a host of new initiatives and promises of better service while continuing to occupy his $245,000-a-year job.
He and Kebede reportedly never got along, but Mitchell’s closest lieutenants remain at his side at the Abel Wolman Municipal Building, named after the engineer who had built Back River into a onetime world-class facility.
Among them are Chief of Staff Audree V. Jones-Taylor, who hired Mitchell years before at the Oakland, Calif., parks department, and Deputy Director Richard Luna, who was Oakland’s deputy assistant city administrator when Mitchell was its assistant city administrator.
Jones-Taylor came out of retirement and Luna quit a consulting job to work for Mitchell after he was hired by Mayor Scott in mid-2021.
We Don’t Know
Luna appeared at a City Council hearing a day after the Back River blast to talk about when DPW might return to weekly neighborhood recycling pickup.
But he was unable to answer basic questions like “How many people do you need to hire?”, “How much will that cost?” or simply, “Tell us what you need to fix this.”
“As soon as we have that information, we’ll provide it to the Council,” Luna said, noting that “it’s an ongoing conversation that we’ll continuously have throughout the department.”
The Council hearing ended with a two-week deadline for answers from DPW.
That was unlikely to happen, Luna said, but the agency will try.
Answering such questions – along with fixing the failing Back River plant and returning recycling collection to its legally mandated weekly service – will fall to whoever Scott selects to succeed Mitchell. That’s if and when it actually happens.