Too late for city to take back Norris' pension

March 14, 2004|By DAN RODRICKS

THERE'S NOTHING worse than realizing you've been bamboozled, made a deal you shouldn't have made, trusted someone you shouldn't have. I can tell you from personal experience - it gives you a sick, sinking feeling, like something from bad clams. You can sue for satisfaction or call the Office of Consumer Protection, and that might make you feel better. But some bad decisions you just have to live with.

Martin O'Malley and other city officials feel this way about Fast Eddie Norris, and not just because he never bought them (as far as we know) any lingerie at Victoria's Secret. It's because of that sweet severance deal they struck with him, only to have Fast Eddie book out of town before he'd finished his job as police commissioner. Now O'Mayor, trying to save face, wants to scrap the deal.

I feel like saying, "Sorry, suckers," except this is a Sunday during Lent and it just wouldn't be very Lenten of me.

So, instead, let's just say I don't think you should mess with a guy's severance - even if he bought liquor and lingerie with "public" money. He didn't steal his severance and pension; he negotiated that. And the mayor, so infatuated with this charming New York cop, agreed to it - a $137,000 severance, plus a $6,850 annual pension for life. The city solicitor's office and the Board of Estimates was in on this, too.

If the city deserves anything back, it's the money - $20,000 in personal expenses and extramarital liaisons, according to the feds - that Fast Eddie took from the auld widder-n-orphans fund, and I believe they've settled that score already, at least in part. Noting Norris' use of the off-the-books Police Department slush fund, the city deducted $7,663 in questionable expenses from his severance pay when he left Baltimore to become state police superintendent.

So restitution for the fraud I can see. But telling Norris he can't have his pension? It seems to me that Norris worked for that. He was a pretty good police commissioner. During his tenure, the city recorded a 29 percent reduction in crimes overall and a 28 percent drop in violent crimes. Baltimore's annual homicide rate numbers fell below 300 for the first time in a decade.

O'Mayor gave this guy his golden parachute, and other city officials - Councilman Jack Young may be the lone exception - thought it was OK. I don't see where they can deny Fast Eddie the lifetime pension they agreed to pay. Some bad decisions you just have to live with.

Slots' race factor

The whole slots thing smells. Anyone who doesn't see race is an ingredient of this scheme is a fool. State senators are willing to put thousands of the computerized bandits in two predominantly black jurisdictions, Prince George's County and Baltimore, while keeping them out of majority-white, affluent Baltimore, Harford and Howard counties. And we're not going anywhere near "family friendly" Ocean City, are we?

There's a simple, cynical reason for this, and you don't need a college education to figure it out - people in lower-income communities (Baltimore) tend to spend more of their available cash on lottery tickets and other forms of gambling than do people from the upper-income levels. So we're going to put slots where we can hit on that "market" again and encourage them to gamble away even more of the money they can't afford to lose.

In PG, there's less of an argument that slots would constitute a tax on the poor. But if slots are good enough for the nation's wealthiest black-majority county, they should also be installed in Montgomery, the wealthiest county in the state and one of the wealthiest in the nation, and also on the border with Virginia. I can just see it now: a big slots den in Rockville, right on the I-270 corridor. Beautiful!

State-run schools

I know it's an old question - addressed by the Thornton Commission, among other study groups - but it has taken on new life amid the financial crisis in the Baltimore schools: Why do we have public school districts? Why should county boundaries affect public education? Why not one system, from Garrett County to Worcester County, Montgomery to Cecil? Why not pay teachers the same everywhere? Why not make the ratio of administrator-to-student uniform statewide? The state administers tests to measure the effectiveness of schools - it sets the statewide standards, and it implements No Child Left Behind reforms - so why doesn't the state run the schools? When you step back and think about it, placing the success of a child's public education on the local tax base is foolish and borders on the immoral.

Talking in transit

Drivers with cell phones make us nervous. Annette Burman doesn't like them, either - especially when the driver has his or her hands on the steering wheel of the MTA bus she takes to work. "How much does the MTA pay its bus drivers to talk on the telephone?" Annette wants to know. "And they don't just talk for a couple seconds. They hold long conversations. ... Some talk on mouth pieces, and most just hold the phone to their ear. ... I think it is just a accident waiting to happen."

Again, it's about money. We don't pay these public servants enough. I suspect they're all working as telemarketers while driving buses.

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