New Annapolis mayor struggles in first months on job

Firings, resignations by Republican draw fire

  • New Annapolis Mayor Mike Pantelides is pictured in council chambers. A Republican in a Democrat-dominated city, has faced a rough road in his first four months in office.
New Annapolis Mayor Mike Pantelides is pictured in council… (Algerina Perna, Baltimore…)
April 17, 2014|By Pamela Wood, The Baltimore Sun

Annapolis Mayor Mike Pantelides thought winning election as a Republican in a Democrat-dominated city would be hard. "The entire state was against me," he said.

Governing has been even tougher.

In the five months since his 59-vote victory, Pantelides has dodged an effort to cut his powers, fired several staff members and accepted resignations from several more. He's faced complaints about a lack of diversity in City Hall and endured a public flap after he was caught passing a profane note to an alderman.

On top of that, the mayor's cousin has been arrested and charged with attempted murder, and questions of propriety were raised when the acting city attorney met with the accused at the Annapolis police station.

The 30-year-old mayor has faced the sharpest barbs over a budget proposal that cuts positions and furloughs employees — a plan Alderman Kenneth Kirby called "ludicrous" and union officials say is a betrayal.

The upheaval has some residents feeling the town is rudderless, says Curtis DeStefano, president of the Murray Hill Residents Association.

"There have been so many high-level changes that the city is operating without support and direction," DeStefano said.

For his part, Pantelides is taking the criticism in stride. "There hasn't been a big screw-up I regret," he said.

When Pantelides — a newcomer to politics who previously worked in sales — defeated incumbent Democrat Josh Cohen in November, he was hailed by the GOP as a wunderkind.

On the campaign trail, he promised to cut government spending, reduce water bills and curb new development, drawing a contrast to Cohen, who advocated redevelopment along the City Dock waterfront and struggled to reopen the city-owned Market House.

Critics have included members of the African-American community, including a prominent minister and a former alderwoman who say the mayor has made no effort to improve diversity in key positions. They point to departures of African-Americans from city staff: former City Attorney Karen Hardwick, former mayoral aides Eugene Peterson and Kirby McKinney and Transportation Director Richard Newell.

"I've seen mayors come and go, and what I've learned is the mayors with no elected experience … are the ones who have the toughest time adjusting to political realities," said Carl Snowden, chairman of the Annapolis housing authority and head of the county's Caucus of African-American Leaders.

Pantelides says he's forced out several white employees, too, and notes that he has hired several women and a Hispanic liaison in his office.

"They're speaking of African-American diversity, not diversity as a whole," Pantelides said of critics.

The challenges were to be expected for a Republican mayor with a majority-Democratic council, some observers point out. "He was going to struggle given the composition of the council. He's not a magician," said Dan Nataf, director of the Center for the Study of Local Issues at Anne Arundel Community College. "It would take a political genius to figure out some way to both honor the campaign pledges and deal with a 7-2 Democratic majority on the council."

Joe Cluster, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party, says some criticism aimed at the mayor is fueled by sour grapes. Pantelides took away power from Democrats, who had a grip on the capital city, he said.

"He's going to have to walk on eggshells, because Democrats see him as a star of the Republican Party. They're going to take advantage of every stumble he has," Cluster said.

But critics suggest some of Pantelides' woes are of his own making. During a council session where diversity was being discussed, Democratic Alderman Ross Arnett prolonged discussion by asking a critic of the mayor to elaborate. The mayor passed Arnett a note: "Thanks for [expletive] me." A picture of the note was circulated — Arnett says not by him — and raced through local media and social media.

"It's between Ross Arnett and I, and we'll handle it man to man," Pantelides said.

Arnett, for his part, says simply, "Out of inexperience, he's just made decisions way too quickly."

Pantelides has struggled winning support for his choice for city attorney, Timothy Murnane, a local lawyer Pantelides met during the election. Murnane headed the campaign's legal oversight of ballot-counting in the days following the election, and has become a close adviser.

When Pantelides brought Murnane's confirmation to the council in December, aldermen postponed a vote, raising questions about his experience.

Murnane's fate may have become murkier after the arrest last month of the mayor's cousin, Savvas Andre Pantelides, on attempted first-degree murder charges in connection with a January shooting during an alleged robbery. Police confirm Murnane met with Savvas Pantelides at the police station after the arrest, and city phone records indicate Murnane also had three phone calls with the police chief the day Savvas Pantelides was arrested.

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