On stakeout at Dixon's house

Our view: Ire over patrol car detailed to the former mayor is part of a broader anger

February 12, 2010

The news that a police car is sitting outside former Mayor Sheila Dixon's house 24 hours a day, even during a massive snowstorm, begs the obvious joke: Are they protecting her from the public, or are they protecting us from her?

The city police union is objecting to the practice of keeping guard for the former mayor, saying that as stretched thin as the force is, Baltimore can't afford to keep an officer and a car stationed outside her house. The union also objects to the guards sitting outside the current mayor's house and the home of the police commissioner.

But the idea that public resources are being expended on a mayor who left office in disgrace after being found guilty of embezzling gift cards meant for poor children seems particularly galling.

It's even more so, considering no one at the department thought that the officer might be better utilized elsewhere during a snowstorm so severe that it was, for more than 12 hours, actually illegal for non-emergency vehicles to drive on the city's streets. If it was so important for civilians to be off the roads so police, firefighters, ambulances and others could get to the scene of any emergencies, wouldn't it seem like that extra car could come in handy?

In the grand scheme of things, having an officer continue to guard the ex-mayor for a short time after she leaves office doesn't seem so unreasonable, particularly considering it has been an established practice for previous mayors. Former Mayor Kurt Schmoke told The Sun's Justin Fenton that he had an officer outside his house for a couple of weeks after he left office -- and that he was burgled shortly after the officer left.

But the flavor of outrage in this case should be familiar by now. It's of a piece with the recent furors over elected officials' pensions (both Ms. Dixon's and those of Baltimore County Council members), the mere prospect that legislators could get raises and, more recently, the drivers assigned to the presiding officers of the General Assembly and other top state officials.

Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the House minority leader, is sponsoring a bill that would strip the House speaker, Senate president, comptroller, treasurer and attorney general of the services of a driver, and would also prohibit state department heads from having state workers drive them to appointments. (The governor and lieutenant governor would get to keep their drivers.) Delegate O'Donnell says his bill is "about how we spend resources and how the elected political classes in Maryland service themselves."

In truth, it's much more about the latter than the former. The Department of Legislative Services estimates that the bill would only save the state about $8,400 a year because the state troopers in question spend most of their time on other duties -- principally, ensuring the security of their charges. Delegate O'Donnell says that estimate is laughably low -- and it's hard to imagine he's not at least a little bit right about that -- but unless the state stripped the officials of protection services altogether, it's hard to imagine the savings would truly amount to much.

But the question about "how the elected political classes in Maryland service themselves" transcends the amount of money that's actually involved. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch may be right in calling Delegate O'Donnell's bill a political ploy. And Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake's decision to cut down on mayoral perks, including the cars Ms. Dixon had assigned to her, may be more political than fiscal. But at a time of recession-tinged populist ire, elected officials ignore these issues at their peril.

Readers respond

Maybe we could pay them with gift cards?

Former city resident

Let her eat cake.

Carole

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