For the dozens of candidates trying to win seats on the Baltimore City Council, victory may bring more than the prestige of elective office. As the incumbents know, the job has its privileges as well.
Public documents and interviews reveal that a majority of council members have hired relatives as paid assistants and the entire council receives gifts, such as free parking and movie passes, not enjoyed by most Baltimoreans.
FOR THE RECORD - In an article Sunday about members of Baltimore's City Council hiring relatives as assistants, the son of Councilwoman Paula Johnson Branch was mistakenly identified. His name is Antonio Johnson.
The Sun regrets the error.
Some of these practices and perks appear to violate the city's ethics law or breach codes of conduct that state how members are expected to behave.
Financial records show that 10 of 19 council members have hired a son, daughter, sister, brother, niece or, in one case, a mother-in-law to serve as paid assistants - for a total of $282,163 in budgeted annual salaries.
In addition, council members - who earn $48,000 a year - get free entry to the garages of a parking company that is asking the council for a tax break and receive free tickets to movies and events.
"It sounds like they have the keys to the city," said James Browning, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, an ethics watchdog organization. The council members' positions, Browning said, "have created a special class of citizen."
Appropriate conduct for City Council members is spelled out in two sets of rules: the city ethics law, which can carry fines if violated, and the council's code of conduct, adopted in 1995, which recommends standards of behavior but imposes no penalties.
The hiring of family members breaches the code of conduct, and a few of the hirings appear to violate the ethics law - although none has been investigated by the city Board of Ethics.
Many of the council members' reasons for believing the hires and gifts are permissible demonstrate confusion.
`Everybody does it'
"Everybody does it, so I didn't know there was anything wrong with it," Councilwoman Pamela V. Carter said. "No one has ever said anything to me that it was against the ethics law."
A city Ethics Board report explaining a bill before the council to revise the ethics law acknowledges confusion about the provision that covers the hiring of relatives.
"The current law is a paradigm, if not a parody, of obtusely written statutory prose," the report says. "In this revision, efforts have been made to revise provisions of this sort in a way that will be readable and understandable by the persons subject to them."
Of the 10 council members with relatives on their payrolls, the three who have hired their siblings - council President Sheila Dixon and council members John K. Cain and Carter - seem to be in violation of the ethics law.
Six council members employ adult sons and daughters - employment permitted by the ethics law that would be prohibited if the revisions are approved.
The gifts received by the council are equally questionable under the ethics law and the code of conduct. The Baltimore Zoo, the 1st Mariner Arena and the Senator Theatre provide free passes. Arrow Parking Inc. gives all council members complimentary cards for short-term parking at its 12 city garages.
Arrow Parking is involved in a joint venture seeking a tax break from the council for a new 500-space garage on West Fayette Street.
Accepting gifts from an entity with business before the council is prohibited by the ethics law. All council members confirmed in interviews that they receive the parking passes, and many said they use them.
"That's interesting," Dixon said of Arrow Parking's involvement in the West Fayette Street deal. "We should just give [the parking cards] back."
The ethics law is enforceable by civil penalties through Circuit Court - if the city solicitor, at the city Ethics Board's request, determines that violations have occurred.
"I think those gifts are potential conflicts," said former state Sen. Julian L. Lapides, who recently left the city Ethics Board to join the state's equivalent. "It's not proper for elected officials to have close relatives on the payroll. It would be in the public interest to have that practice banned."
While the city's ethics law does not directly prohibit nepotism, its conflict-of-interest provision states that elected officials cannot make decisions that have a financial impact on a "spouse, parent, minor child, brother, or sister." Because council members control their office budgets, hiring of assistants would fall under this provision, ethics officials said.
By those standards, council members can hire their sons and daughters so long as they are older than 18. Brothers, sisters, spouses and parents are not allowed.
"I did not know that," said Dixon, whose sister is a part-time staff member for the council president. "There are some things that are not really clear."
Some council members acknowledged the nepotism on the financial disclosure forms that all candidates were required to file by July 10. In other cases, council members disclosed hiring relatives in interviews.
Who's hired relatives