Family business

February 07, 2006

Family matters, but when it comes to city business involving family, Baltimore City Council President Sheila Dixon must step aside. There's no ambiguity in the city ethics law on this point: An elected official must refrain from "any matter" involving a sibling's interest. Ms. Dixon never should have participated in a City Council discussion on minority involvement in the city's cable franchise because her sister works for a firm that has gotten this work in the past. The council president should know better.

The city's ethics law was revised and strengthened last year because of a longtime council practice of hiring family members. An article in The Sun in 2003 raised questions about the nepotism issue and perks given to council members. At the time, Ms. Dixon's sister Janice was on the council's payroll, and nine other council members had hired family members in the past.

The nepotism practice became embroiled in a federal investigation of council hiring and perks that ultimately ended with no charges brought. But it prompted a rewrite of the city's code of conduct and expanded city financial disclosure rules to an additional 430 employees.

The ethical concern now involves a City Council hearing last Thursday. Complaints about minority contractors' participation in the city's cable franchise had Ms. Dixon asking questions of Comcast representatives. She mentioned several minority contractors, including the firm that employs Janice Dixon, but failed to let anyone know that her sister worked for the company, Utech. She erred on two fronts. Ms. Dixon shouldn't have participated in the hearing, but once she did, she should have disclosed her sister's employment at Utech.

During the hearing, Comcast testified that it had met its minority business requirements last year, awarding at least $4 million worth of work to minority- or women-owned firms, according to a report by The Sun's Doug Donovan. The company has said it dropped Utech as one of its subcontractors.

If minority contractors are not getting their fair share of cable work, that's worthy of inquiry. But Ms. Dixon shouldn't be the person inquiring, because it involves family business. That's the essence of it - and the ethics.

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