Dixon's second job could be liability

Risk: In ignoring ethics ruling, city's No. 2 official opens herself up for criticism.

June 26, 2000

THERE'S NOTHING in Baltimore's charter that says City Council President Sheila Dixon cannot have a second job -- except that she promised during her campaign that she wouldn't and a state ethics panel has ruled she shouldn't.

"It kind of balances my thinking. It helps me to stay in the real world," Ms. Dixon says of the job she has held for nearly 14 years with the state Department of Business and Economic Development.

During last year's campaign, Ms. Dixon pledged to be a full-time City Council president. She says she has kept that promise: The trade representative's job with the state is now part-time.

She says she is no different from Mayor Martin O'Malley, who performs occasionally with his Irish folk group. "For him that is a second job," she insists.

Ms. Dixon is wrong.

Those two jobs are not comparable. However little or much Mr. O'Malley sings, he is unlikely to ever face a conflict of interest. That danger is present, though, in Ms. Dixon's double-dipping: She chairs the Board of Estimates, which is often asked to approve economic development contracts in which her two roles overlap. In fact, she had qualms about the propriety of her dual roles and asked for an opinion from the Maryland State Ethics Commission.

The ethics panel ruled her "dual employment would be inconsistent with prohibitions in the public ethics law." But her boss, state Economic Development Secretary Richard C. Mike Lewin, told her to keep her $29,000-a-year sinecure.

Making it all worse is that just before its term expired in December, the lame-duck City Council -- including Ms. Dixon, a councilwoman at the time headed for the presidency -- voted steep raises for itself and the top citywide officials. The job of City Council president now pays a hefty $80,000 a year.

In the past, City Council presidents have not had outside jobs. Neither have city comptrollers, who are also members of the Board of Estimates. Yet Joan Pratt continues her involvement with her accounting firm, even though that, too, could present conflicts.

One reason for voter skepticism is that politicians don't seem to be like the rest of us. They think since they approve so many rules, other rules don't apply to them. In keeping outside jobs, Ms. Dixon and Ms. Pratt take unwise risks that may return to haunt them.

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