Dixon disappoints us (again)

Our view: No shock that the ex-mayor billed taxpayers for getting her makeup done

May 09, 2010

And here we thought former Mayor Sheila Dixon fought so hard to preserve the budget for Baltimore's cable channel because she was using it as free political self-promotion. Turns out she was actually using it as a vehicle to get city taxpayers to cover her extensive personal grooming expenses. Either way, we can be glad she's gone, and that her successor is gutting the cable channel's budget.

It's hard to even muster much righteous indignation at the news, first reported this week by Fox 45, that Ms. Dixon used the excuse of her appearances on the cable channel to bill the city $11,600 in salon bills for getting her makeup done, at $350 and up per session. After the previous reports that the former mayor had been reimbursed $700 for getting her hair done while in office, on top of the petty pilfering of gift cards that actually prompted a jury of her peers to find her guilty of embezzlement, it ceases to become surprising that Ms. Dixon looked at taxpayers the way feudal lords looked at serfs.

Her successor, Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, has not and will not charge the city for getting her hair and makeup done, her spokesman Ryan O'Doherty says, adding that all she needs to perform her duties is a steady supply of Starbucks coffee, and she pays for that herself. Still, it's worth considering the circumstances that allowed Ms. Dixon to get away with using her expense account like a bottomless piggy bank.

As in pretty much any business or government agency, city employees can receive reimbursement for legitimate on-the-job expenses, provided those expenses are approved by their department. Ms. Dixon's makeup bills, for example, were signed off on by the head of the Mayor's Office of Cable and Communications, whose budget covered the expenses. However, since that official reports to the mayor, it's hard to look at that as a particularly effective check. In fact, since virtually all high-ranking city employees serve at the mayor's pleasure, one wonders who would be sufficiently independent to be able to stand up and say no to something like this.

The answer might be to let the mayor's boss — that is, the voters — review his or her expenses. The city has a rudimentary database that allows people to see who is getting government contracts; posting the mayor's expense reports — better yet, those of all city elected officials — is really only an extension of that idea. People are cynical enough about whether politicians are in office to help the citizens or to help themselves, and Ms. Dixon's actions haven't helped. A little transparency could go a long way in restoring trust and reminding elected officials of who it is they work for.

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