The $83,000 question

December 22, 2006

Mayor Martin O'Malley's last-minute push for a nearly 60 percent raise for Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy is one of his most curious actions in recent memory. After all, it's no secret that there's no love lost between the two. But that just may be the point: Perhaps he wants to sweeten the pot to entice someone - anyone - to run against her.

It's a particularly puzzling turn of events because Mrs. Jessamy was just re-elected and will presumably collect a nice, fat paycheck for the next four years. It's also an odd choice for Mr. O'Malley as he leaves Baltimore for Annapolis - a whopping $83,000 pay increase for one officeholder in a city that has barely emerged from financial hard times. Is this what we can expect of the governor-elect when he takes his seat on the Board of Public Works ?

There's no question that Mrs. Jessamy has a demanding job. She manages Maryland's largest state's attorney's office with the most complex caseload and has been earning $142,055. By comparison, the Baltimore County state's attorney makes $185,000. Over the years, Mrs. Jessamy has come under intense public criticism, from Mr. O'Malley and others, as to how well she does her job.

In 2002, the last time she was eligible for a raise, such criticism apparently cost her part of a requested raise. This year, she reportedly would have been content with the city finance department's recommendation of a 6.5 percent increase. But at the last Board of Estimates meeting where the raise could be considered, Mr. O'Malley surprised everyone by proposing to raise her salary to $225,000, seemingly without much thought or justification - and the other board members (dumbstruck, we guess) followed his lead.

That makes the state's attorney the highest-paid official in the city.

Although he conceded that Mrs. Jessamy has a "very tough job," Mr. O'Malley also noted that there had not been a competitive race for the job in 20 years. Was he motivated by his wife's possible interest in the job? A Sept. 22 article on District Court Judge Catherine Curran O'Malley in The Examiner listed her "dream job" as Baltimore City state's attorney.

Whether or not Mr. O'Malley had that in mind, his attempt to rustle up top-level competition comes at the city's expense. That's $83,000 a year that his immediate successor, City Council President Sheila Dixon, won't be able to spend. Mr. O'Malley's action is eerily reminiscent of some of the mayor's previous ill-timed moments of impulsiveness.

For her part, Mrs. Jessamy insists that the job is about public service, not a high salary. But she could best counter the mayor's punch by proposing that part of the raise pay for a new prosecutor to focus on gangs, an area of acute interest to her office and Baltimore's safety.

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