When Baltimore City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake takes over as mayor Feb. 4, she will confront tremendous challenges. In addition to Baltimore's perennial problems of crime and poverty, she will immediately have to grapple with a budget shortfall, ballooning costs of the city police and fire pension system, a General Assembly session and the collapse of the plan for a Baltimore slots parlor.
But she faces an extra burden. She will be elevated to the top job by the resignation of Mayor Sheila Dixon as a result of a plea agreement related to charges of embezzlement and perjury. And the ethical cloud does not end with those crimes on which prosecutors secured convictions and guilty pleas against the mayor. Ms. Dixon attempted to steer contracts to her sister's employer and gave $600,000 of work, most of it without a contract, to her former campaign chairman. Previously, Ms. Dixon and other members of the City Council enjoyed perks like free parking and movie tickets. And one councilwoman, Helen Holton, still faces charges stemming from a political poll she got two developers to pay for. The citizens of Baltimore could be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that ethics are in short supply at City Hall.
The fact that Ms. Rawlings-Blake has not been caught up in ethics scandals in the past is heartening, but it is not sufficient to restore public confidence in the city government. In addition to the other policies she must pursue, Ms. Rawlings-Blake should enact an agenda of concrete reforms to help make the city government more transparent and accountable.
The arguments Mayor Dixon's lawyers made in an attempt to get her out of legal trouble provide a good place to start. Attorney Arnold Weiner claimed that Ms. Dixon was not required to report lavish gifts from developer Ronald H. Lipscomb because, despite the millions in tax breaks he received, he did not meet the definition of someone who does business with the city and because the city did not maintain a proper list of those who do meet the definition. Those arguments were absurd in any venue other than a lawyer's brief, but Ms. Rawlings-Blake could act to close any possibility of a loophole.
The question of who is paying Ms. Dixon's legal fees has also posed a massive potential conflict of interest. Ms. Dixon will not be seeking reimbursement from the taxpayers, but that question was never clear until after the fact. Ms. Rawlings-Blake should develop a policy for the circumstances in which it is and is not appropriate for taxpayers to foot legal fees for a city official - and to put limits on the practice. Paying for a lawyer is one thing, but Ms. Dixon had seven. Furthermore, the city needs strict rules to make any legal defense fund created on behalf of an elected official fully transparent. Those who do business with the city should be prohibited from donating, and any such fund should be required to make regular disclosure of any contributions it receives and any expenditures it makes.
Finally, Ms. Dixon has run into repeated conflicts of interest in her role as a member of the Board of Estimates. She agreed to recuse herself from decisions involving Mr. Lipscomb, but that concession to ethics was meaningless considering she still controlled two other seats on the five-member board. The board's size should be reduced to three members: the mayor, the City Council president and the comptroller. That follows the model of the state Board of Public Works, in which the three members are all independent of one another. That not only avoids problems like those Ms. Dixon's administration faced but also would make the body a true check against wasteful spending.
That last reform was among those suggested in the 2007 mayoral race by Keiffer Mitchell Jr., who challenged Mayor Dixon in a campaign centered on City Hall corruption and who has graciously refrained from taking out billboards around town reading "I told you so." Mr. Mitchell also suggested creating an online database of all city contracts - something the state and federal governments already do - and mandating increased disclosure of campaign contributions from those who have current or pending contracts with the city. He also suggested cracking down on the practice of breaking contracts into small chunks to avoid Board of Estimates scrutiny, and audits of firms that sidestep minority contracting requirements. Those ideas should be adopted, too.
A credible two party system might be another "reform" worth discussing.
Republicans have their place (although I think it might be the suburbs). A lame primary system overseen by the party in charge is no way to have a system of advocacy/election wherein shady past practices are brought to light by the party out of favor.
Line up the big city mayors brought low by U.S. attorneys. Wouldn't an election be better than a witch hunt? Even if there are witches to hunt?