Playing politics? Now? Really?

August 31, 2007|By JEAN MARBELLA

At a City Hall news conference yesterday, the text may have been a $12 million grant for homeland security but the subtext was personal job security.

Mayor Sheila Dixon (running to keep her job in the Sept. 11 primary election) was flanked by Fire Chief William Goodwin (hanging on despite a scathing report faulting his department's lax standards for the death of a fire cadet) and acting Police Commissioner Frederick Bealefeld (hoping to win permanent status even as former D.C. police chief Charles Ramsey emerged very publicly this week as his top rival for the post).

The $12 million grant largely will go toward disaster preparedness, so it doesn't really speak to either the rising crime that has already led Dixon to dump one police commissioner or the fire academy problems that prompted her to dismiss three officials. So far.

"Are there more changes that need to be made?" Dixon asked rhetorically in response to a question about the fire report. "Yes."

Just "yes." Not "present company excluded."

With the primary fast approaching, any high-level hirings or firings - especially in the realm of public safety, with voters pointing to crime as the top issue in the mayor's race - immediately are suspect. Is someone going to be hired or fired on merit or for political gain?

That's what you had to wonder when The Sun revealed this week that Dixon has been searching for a permanent police commissioner, had narrowed it down to Bealefeld and Ramsey, and could announce her pick soon.

Her main rival for the mayor's office, City Councilman Keiffer Mitchell, did more than wonder. He held his own news conference after Dixon's. As supporters - including members of the police and firefighter unions that have endorsed him - waved campaign signs, Mitchell accused Dixon of playing politics with the office of the police commissioner.

You think?

It's an election year. Dixon has staged event after bountiful event, one day pledging to spend $250 million to build new schools, another day announcing the lead developer for the long-awaited $200 million Uplands housing development. Ah, it's good to be queen.

When it comes to crime, every candidate can announce a plan but only Dixon - by virtue of the office she took over when her predecessor, Martin O'Malley, became governor in January - can do something - like fire or hire a police commissioner. Which leaves her open to the playing-politics charge, which she naturally would deny.

"She is the mayor," her spokesman, Anthony McCarthy, said. "There is a vacancy."

Yesterday, Mitchell criticized Dixon, saying she "waited for a poll" before asking for the resignation of the previous police commissioner, Leonard Hamm - a reference to his firing in July, just days after The Sun found that 40 percent of those polled thought he was ineffective. And now, just days before the primary, Dixon was "floating" the prospect of naming a permanent replacement as a way of showing voters that she's again taking action, Mitchell said.

"Bottom line," he said, "this search must rise above politics."

The timing of the news about the police commissioner is indeed curious, and not just because it comes so close to the primary. For one thing, Bealefeld is popular among many of the rank and file, having risen through the department himself, and Dixon said yesterday he is "doing a great job."

Addditionally, police spokesman Sterling Clifford noted what he called "a pretty dramatic" decrease in nonfatal shootings since Bealefeld took over, from 74 in July to 32 in August. The number of homicides is down as well, albeit to a lesser degree, from 28 in July to 23 in August, as of yesterday morning. (Although year to date, homicides and nonfatal shootings both remain up.)

"It's always a combination of factors," Clifford said of the monthly declines. "Those number will move around a little bit, up or down, sometimes on their own. But the indications are that we're now moving in the right direction."

So what would be the point of naming a new commissioner now, especially with the primary looming?

"There is no real point in naming it before or after," Dixon said yesterday. "The bottom line is, I want to reduce crime in the city ... and I want our Police Department to stay focused, not getting involved with the politics of what's going on and the most negative things that are being done and said by the [Fraternal Order of Police union] and some of my opponents."

Finally, Dixon and Mitchell agree on something: Both say the other is acting politically in a political year.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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Find Jean Marbella's column archive at baltimoresun.com/marbella

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