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Commentaryby David Plymyer11:43 amDec 11, 20190

Worse than Young’s gaffes is his refusal to enforce a new law

The mayor’s odd statements are embarrassing, but his vow to not enforce the “gag order” ban is outrageous – and a reason to vote him out in 2020 (OP-ED).

Above: Mayor Young at a recent Northwest Baltimore community meeting. (Fern Shen)

The buffoonish statements Mayor Jack Young has made since taking office last May have raised a question about the 2020 mayoral candidate: Is he fit for the job?

Thanks to his recent announcement that he will not comply with City Council Bill 19-0409 – now a law – we have a definitive answer to that question:

No, Young is not fit to be mayor.

In the broadest sense, he lacks the judgment to be an effective mayor at a time when Baltimore needs one the most.

Bill 19-0409 was passed on a 15-0 vote by the Council and enacted into law on December 2. Its provisions make it unlawful to require victims of police misconduct to agree to refrain from publicly discussing the facts or circumstances of their claims as a condition of receiving a monetary settlement from the city.

While Young’s oddball pronouncements have made him an object of public ridicule, his decision to defy a duly-passed law banning the use of non-disparagement clauses has brought him serious scorn.

If there is a silver lining in this cloud, it’s that city voters are learning how poorly suited Young is for the job of mayor before next year’s election rather than, in the case of his disgraced predecessor, Catherine Pugh, after it.

Tone deaf and Baffling

As another year closes with more than 300 murders, the unremitting epidemic of violent crime in Baltimore clearly has Young flummoxed.

His silly remarks are unmistakable signs that he is cracking under the pressure.

In June, Young suggested that disputes on the streets could be kept from evolving into gun violence by having the antagonists resolve their differences in boxing matches at Royal Farms Arena.

He wasn’t kidding. “[May] the best man win, and the beef should be over,” Young explained. “Those are some kinds of things I’m thinking about and hoping that we can get these people to put these guns down.”

Last month, Young said that he hoped a cold winter would keep gang members off the streets.

“As you know, it’s like planting a flower. In the winter, it dies, and it comes back,” he said. “I’m hoping with the colder weather, they will stay inside, watch TV and help kids with homework.”

Yes, he actually said that. And, as far as I can tell, he believed it.

Less than two weeks later, he made another statement that will live in infamy in Baltimore for its whiny, tone-deaf failure to grasp what it means to be the mayor.

I’m not committing the murders, and that’s what people need to understand,” Young said at his weekly press conference. “How can you fault leadership? This has been five years of 300-plus murders. I don’t see it as a lack of leadership.”

Not exactly what citizens desperate for someone to lead the city back from edge of the abyss wanted to hear.

Spreading Facebook Gossip

In an apparent case of damage control gone wrong, Young sought to affirm his commitment to the crime fight – only to end up with arguably his worst gaffe yet.

In a television interview, he warned the public about people in a white van “snatching” young girls to sell their organs.

“We’re getting reports of somebody in a white van trying to snatch up young girls for human trafficking and for selling body parts, I’m told,” he said. “So, we have to be careful because there’s so much evil going on, not just in the city of Baltimore, but around the country. It’s all over Facebook.”

“Jack Young hasn’t lost his way as mayor; he never found it.”

It may have been “all over” social media, but neither the Baltimore Police Department nor the FBI had received any reports of this “snatching.”

It was Mayor Young doing his best “Chicken Little” imitation in a city that is already frightened enough.

Experts lectured him about panicking the public and distracting from legitimate efforts to combat human trafficking. Needless to say, the ridicule of Young on both traditional and social media was intense.

• A Facebook rumor about white vans is spreading fear across America (CNN 12/4/19)

Refusal to Enforce a Law

It is one thing to make buffoonish statements. It is quite another to make inexcusably bad decisions, such as Young’s refusal to comply with the new law resulting from Bill 19-0409.

The use of non-disparagement clauses (sometimes referred to as “gag orders”) in settlement agreements with the alleged victims of police conduct became increasingly controversial in the city as the full scope of the problems within the Baltimore Police Department became known.

The concept of protecting the reputations of officers whose misdeeds resulted in the monetary settlements was bad enough. Even worse was the fact that the clauses promoted the secrecy that allowed corruption and abuse in the department to flourish.

The city was urged by many to abandon the practice of using non-disparagement agreements as antithetical to the goal of restoring public trust in the BPD.

It refused to do so, but in July the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit spoke with authority, striking down the use of the clauses by the city as unenforceable waivers of victims’ First Amendment rights.

According to City Solicitor Andre Davis, the city already had revised its non-disparagement policy by the time the court issued its opinion. He claimed that the new policy did not violate victims’ rights. The ACLU, one of the parties to the lawsuit against the city, disagreed, portending the possibility of more litigation.

Twelve members of the council responded by co-sponsoring Bill 19-0409 to put the issue to rest once and for all.

The bill became law, but Young and Davis had other ideas.

Flawed Arguments

Young stated that he will not abide by the law on Davis’ advice.

Davis contends the ordinance violates state and city law based primarily on two arguments. The first is that the Council lacks the power to interfere with the operation of the BPD, a state agency.

This argument is absurd. The ordinance places a condition on the expenditure of city funds used to settle claims that has no effect on the operation of the department itself. The decision to use such funds to settle claims against the BPD rests with the city, not the BPD.

Suffice it to say that curtailing the right of a victim of police misconduct to speak freely about the misconduct is not a law enforcement matter committed by state law to the sole discretion of the Police Commissioner.

The second argument is that the ordinance intrudes upon the sole authority given to the city solicitor over the “preparation and trial” of lawsuits to which the city is a party.

The gigantic flaw in that argument is that, while the solicitor controls how legal proceedings are conducted, he has absolutely no authority to approve the payment of city money to settle a suit.

The city charter confers that authority on the Board of Estimates and allows the City Council to place conditions on its exercise by legislation such as Bill 19-0409.

“Why would the mayor make that choice? The answer is that his judgment is dreadful.”

Further muddying the administration’s position on the matter were Young’s statements on the radio.

He confirmed that he didn’t plan to sign the bill banning gag orders, but also said he doesn’t like them. (“I don’t think nobody should have a gag order,” Young said, adding without explanation: “I’m in the process of fixing that right now.”)

“Lost ball in high grass”

Young chose to infuriate citizens and members of the Council by ignoring a law that enjoys broad public support. He did so to protect the city solicitor’s unfettered right to include non-disparagement clauses in settlement agreements – a prerogative that only the solicitor seems to care about.

Even if the solicitor’s legal arguments were stronger, why would Young make that choice? The answer is that his judgment is dreadful. Part of being a mayor is knowing which advice to accept, and which to reject.

Former state senator Harry McGuirk famously referred to then-gubernatorial candidate Harry Hughes as “a lost ball in high grass.” That description of Hughes, as it turned out, was not apt. The metaphor, however, does apply to Young.

At this critical juncture in its history, Baltimore needs someone who is more than at best “well meaning” or “just okay.” Young hasn’t lost his way as mayor; he never found it.

If that sounds harsh, so be it. Harking back to Young’s boxing ring idea, this is no time to be pulling punches; the stakes are far too high.

Baltimore cannot afford four more years with Jack Young as mayor, and the sooner people realize that the better.
DAVID A. PLYMYER retired as Anne Arundel County Attorney in 2014 after 31 years in the County Office of Law. He also served as a prosecutor in the Anne Arundel County State’s Attorney Office.

NOTE: Baltimore Brew is a party in the lawsuit that resulted in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals striking down Baltimore’s police “gag order” policy as unconstitutional.

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