No More Santa Claus

Our View: It's Good That The City Is Discontinuing The Poorly Managed Holly Trolley, But Claiming The Decision Had Nothing To Do With The Mayor's Trial Strains Credulity

December 09, 2009

We got good news and bad news on the ethics front at City Hall on Monday. The good news: The city has decided to discontinue the ill-advised Holly Trolley event, a thinly disguised and poorly managed taxpayer-funded Yuletide tradition of political aggrandizement for Mayor Sheila Dixon.

The bad news: City officials are claiming that this decision has nothing to do with the revelations about the event in Mayor Dixon's recently concluded theft and embezzlement trial. That means either they're lying or completely oblivious to reality.

Here's why the city should discontinue the Holly Trolley: Testimony at Mayor Dixon's trial showed that it was rife with the potential for corruption and, in at least one case, actual corruption. City housing employee Lindbergh Carpenter, who helped run the event, stole $140 in Toys "R" Us gift cards that were left over from the event one year and lost his job over it. He testified that there was no system of accounting for the cards. Ms. Dixon handed out gift cards at the event, and some of them wound up in the bottom of a Victoria's Secret bag in her house with other gift cards of unknown origin. The mayor gave another Holly Trolley gift card to a city employee who has a combined household income of more than $500,000 a year.

Even if the city instituted a proper accounting system, the Holly Trolley would still be fatally flawed because it essentially used public money to build political support for the mayor. It was not some anonymous bureaucrat who went to poor neighborhoods to hand out gift cards but the mayor herself, and the cards did not drop from the sky but were bought with at least $5,500 in taxpayer funds. (Whether some of the gift cards Mayor Dixon solicited from developers who do business with the city - a massive ethical problem in and of itself - ever wound up on the Holly Trolley is unclear.)

City Council Vice President Edward Reisinger lamented the demise of the Holly Trolley, The Sun's Annie Linskey reports, saying "It's like Santa Claus is not coming this year." But that's the problem. It wasn't Santa Claus handing out the gift cards. It was Sheila Claus, and that carries a host of complications.

But that's not the reason First Deputy Mayor Andrew B. Frank gave for the discontinuation of the tradition. Mr. Frank said the program is being canceled because it no longer fits with the goals of the city's Community Action Centers, which were revised after a review by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. As if their goals had previously been to improve poor city residents' access to merchandise at big box toy retailers.

Why does the reason for the Holly Trolley's demise matter? Because the Dixon administration is operating under a cloud after a jury found the mayor guilty of embezzling another batch of gift cards donated by a developer who thought they were going to help poor children and because she has refused to discuss that or any of the other charges against her. We are left to wonder whether the mayor has learned anything from seeing her questionable - and in at least one case, criminal - behavior detailed in court. We need to know that people in City Hall were horrified by the lax ethics outlined in the trial and are committed to cleaning things up.

So, when city officials claim the Holly Trolley decision had nothing to do with the trial, we are stuck hoping against hope that they are simply lying to the people they serve.

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