Teenagers looking for role models not likely to find them at City Hall


January 15, 2009|By PETER HERMANN | PETER HERMANN,peter.hermann@baltsun.com

A frustrated Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III, facing an upsurge in crime just days into the new year, said at a news conference recently that he and the mayor can't be the only ones "trying to engage people's morality about violence in this city."

That was a day after a city councilwoman and a developer were indicted on bribery charges in connection with tax breaks for a waterfront project and a day before the mayor was indicted on charges that she appropriated gift cards meant for the poor and didn't disclose lavish gifts on her public expense reports.

Makes a lecture about morality seem kind of silly, doesn't it?

How do you ask residents to volunteer at a youth center, donate money to a recreation league, turn a criminal in to the police, when the very people asking you to help are accused of helping themselves at your expense?

It was bad enough when the mayor and council members finagled a pay raise while cutting the police budget during a crime wave and had to donate it to charity or give it back under the threat of public humiliation.

Now, their credibility is stretched even further.

A jury might have to decide whether Mayor Sheila Dixon used gift cards from a prominent developer to help the needy, as her lawyer says, or on video games to help herself, as the state prosecutor says.

Jurors might also have to decide whether the developer's status as a subcontractor on city projects means Dixon doesn't have to disclose his gifts.

Legal parsing means everything in a court of law but means nothing in the court of public opinion, where on the streets it holds that the practice of quid pro quo is so ingrained among the elected and the powerful that it happens without anyone having to discuss the terms.

It makes proving malfeasance difficult for prosecutors. But when, as it is alleged, the mayor hands an employee 40 hundred-dollar bills so the worker can write a check to pay off her credit card bill, she knows and you know that something unseemly is happening here.

I met with a group of teenagers in a leadership program sponsored by Community Law in Action. It's a mix of young men and women who both excel in school and struggle to attend classes. They recalled some of Dixon's earlier ethical lapses - "Didn't she have some kind of problems before?" asked Donovan Badgger, 17.

Of the indictment, he added, "It makes you wonder how our leaders are going to help the city, whether they're helping us."

Chante Bonner, 16, wondered whether some in the city would use the indictments to continue in their own illicit ways: "They might figure, if they can do it, why can't I?"

Jonathan Hannah, 17, escaped gangs and is struggling to stay in school and graduate. He as much as anyone needs role models, and they're not going to be found at City Hall.

"We're here trying to be young leaders," Hannah said, reflecting on the news of the day. "How can you do this and take care of your city?"

Marvin "Doc" Cheatham Sr., head of the city's NAACP, is trying to put together a rally Jan. 31 to get city residents angry over the latest spate of violence. He wants the City Council members, the police commissioner, the churches, the people "to start screaming and hollering" as part of a "unified front" to stop the killing.

I asked Cheatham whether it is harder to persuade people to come together when their leaders are under indictment.

"You separate," he told me. "What elected officials do and don't do is one issue. That people are losing their lives and the community is relatively silent is a totally separate issue, and is far more critical."

Bealefeld told us he and the mayor can't be the only ones "trying to engage people's morality."

Let's hope Cheatham is right. At this rate, the chief will be among the few public officials with any credibility left to make that plea.

A clarification: In yesterday's column I may have given the wrong impression about Baltimore Health Commissioner Joshua M. Sharfstein's concerns for the future of an anti-crime program called Operation Safe Streets.

"What I said was that pending budget cuts at the city and state level generally are going to make funding for Safe Streets difficult," Sharfstein told me in an e-mail.

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