Dixon Should Step Aside

Our View: The Mayor Has A Right To Pursue Her Legal Options, But Remaining As The City's Chief Executive At The Same Time Robs Baltimore Of Untainted Leadership

December 13, 2009

Mayor Sheila Dixon's legal filings Friday indicate that she intends to use every tactic at her disposal to fight her conviction on a charge of embezzlement and to stay in office. The cloud her attorneys have created could take months to clear, leaving Baltimore in a leadership limbo as the mayor is distracted by her legal woes and potential allies and partners are reluctant to work with a city whose top official has been found guilty by a jury of her peers. Clinging to power may be good for Ms. Dixon, but it is hard to imagine that her determination to continue as if nothing was wrong is anything but harmful to the city she professes to love. Mayor Dixon has every right to pursue her legal options, but in the meantime, she needs to step aside.

The state constitution anticipates a transfer of power in such a situation. It says that if an official has been convicted of a felony or a misdemeanor related to her public duties that is a crime of moral turpitude and that carries a possible prison sentence, she is suspended from office during the period of appeals. If the appeals are unsuccessful, she is permanently removed, but if the conviction is overturned, she returns to office. The catch is that under a three-decade-old attorney general's opinion, which has never been tested in court, a conviction, for the purposes of that section of the constitution, becomes official at the sentencing, not with a jury's guilty verdict. Her sentencing is now set for Jan. 21, but it is unclear whether her legal efforts might force a delay. Arguments about whether her crime fits the definition in the constitution could extend this period of uncertainty even further.

That means Mayor Dixon can stay in office over the coming weeks no matter what else happens in court. But it doesn't mean she has to. The Baltimore City Charter says that "in case of, and during, sickness, temporary disqualification or necessary absence of the mayor, the city council president shall be ex officio mayor of the city." Mayor Dixon could, if she so chose, use that provision to hand over the reins of power while her legal situation is settled without permanently forfeiting office.

There is precedent for such a step. In 1977, when then-Gov. Marvin Mandel was on trial for mail fraud and racketeering, he abdicated his duties as governor to then-Lt. Gov. Blair Lee III. He said at the time that he was stepping down temporarily for health reasons - he had suffered a minor stroke - and that for him to attempt to run the state, recuperate and attend his trial at the same time would shortchange the citizens. Thus, Mr. Lee was already acting governor when Mr. Mandel was convicted in August of that year. In the two months before his sentencing, Mr. Mandel did not resign from office, but he did not resume his duties as governor either.

As much as the mayor and her staff insist that her conviction has no effect on the running of the city, there is no question that it does. Witness the announcement this week that the mayor's annual Holly Trolley, a charity program that provides Christmas gifts to the poor but which was also central to the mayor's trial, was being discontinued. Ms. Dixon's refusal to acknowledge any wrongdoing - or even the appearance of impropriety - put her administration in an untenable situation. They could not very well continue the tradition because of her continued presence in office. But because of her legal strategy, they could not acknowledge that the trial had exposed the ethical laxity with which the event had been conducted in the past.

Also telling were the comments from Jennifer Langford-Gilligan, the director of sales for Baltimore's Ritz-Carlton Residences, which is sponsoring its own toy giveaway this year. The company sought out a list of names of needy children and was eventually referred to the mayor's office, which provided one. But Ms. Langford-Gilligan took pains to disassociate her company's effort from the mayor's office. "We are not going to align ourselves with the city," she said. "It is not politically motivated."

Having the Ritz keep its distance is small potatoes compared to the others who may not wish to associate themselves with a tainted administration. President Barack Obama disinvited Ms. Dixon from a White House meeting of big-city mayors when she was merely under indictment. What kind of partnership can we expect now that she's been convicted? Other Maryland leaders have not yet called on her to resign, but how many will stand with her when it comes time to seek more state aid?

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