Mayor's cable station should go

Sheila Dixon's cosmetology bills aside, why are taxpayers funding this PR boondoggle?

May 11, 2010|By Marta H. Mossburg

Nero played fiddle while Rome burned. Sheila Dixon teetered on stilettos, wrapped in mink, with glossy lips paid for by someone else, while the city crumbled around her.

We already know the disgraced former mayor stole gift cards from poor people and hit up her developer boyfriend for haute couture. But thanks to Fox 45, we also know she billed the city's few remaining taxpayers more than $11,000 for makeup, including days before she resigned to save her $83,000-per-year pension from the limp handshake of justice.

What's worse is that the makeup sessions, billed at a minimum of $350 a pop, were for appearances on the city's public access cable channel, TV 25. It's the one whose mission is to showcase "news and information viewers can — and do — use in their lives in communities."

Part of its lineup was "Breakfast with the Mayor," a segment in which "Mayor Dixon showcases Baltimore's best and brightest jewels." Were those ones she bought with gift cards?

If TV 25's mission was really about public access, why would the mayor care so much about her appearance? If it was a taxpayer-funded reelection tool, her beauty treatments make sense in the perverse way that those who see themselves above the law view the world.

And it raises the question why Democrats are so angry at Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. for continuing his radio program on WBAL while running for governor. Why weren't they also howling about Mayor Dixon using millions of taxpayer dollars to run a TV channel to promote herself in a city that each year takes more from the state than it gives?

Why TV 25 even exists should be the next question. The next fiscal year's preliminary budget calls for the station to achieve self-sufficiency through partnerships with local universities and funding from underwriting and subscriber fees it estimates at $1.2 million. Last year it received a $700,000 subsidy from general funds, which Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has proposed eliminating. However, taxpayers will likely not be left off the hook, as the budget requires the station to double its revenues from last year with the same lousy business model.

After all, who would want to offer underwriting support for a station that has no idea how many people are watching?

Marilyn Harris-Davis, executive director of the Mayor's Office of Cable and Communications, says she doesn't know who watches the channel. "There are no ratings for cable. It's not just us, it's all cable channels," she said. To the contrary, cable is closely monitored, according to Gary Holmes, a spokesman for Nielsen Co. Companies that pay Nielsen find out where their programs rate. If the city paid to find out who watched TV 25, it would probably discover that almost no one would be impacted except the staff in the office.

The only other person who would be affected by the cable station closing lost her job when Mayor Rawlings-Blake took office. The new mayor lacquers her own lashes, according to spokesman Ryan O'Doherty. And she always looks great.

A random sampling of politicians shows they are equally capable of putting on their faces by themselves. U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, Democrat of Maryland, powders her own nose, according to her spokeswoman, Rachel MacKnight. Republican Ellen Sauerbrey, the former minority leader of the Maryland House of Delegates, applied her own makeup in office. "I never would have even thought about it [hiring someone]," she said. The only extra help she received in that department was from a volunteer prior to taping a commercial in support of one of her gubernatorial runs, she said.

To see if it is only Maryland politicians, and women, who are such sticklers for doing their own makeup, I called Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed's office. He doesn't bill taxpayers for an aesthetician, according to a spokesman for the Democrat, Reese McCranie. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's office did not return a request for comment.

While the makeup bills should do little to change public perception of the former mayor, they should shine a spotlight on a need for more transparency in city government and on TV 25. If the station did not exist, Ms. Dixon would not have been able to charge the services in the first place. But the bigger issue is why a station without ratings that offers the same coverage of city government for millions that a web camera could for a few hundred dollars makes sense at all.

Marta H. Mossburg is a senior fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute and a fellow at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Her column appears regularly in The Baltimore Sun. Her e-mail is martamossburg@gmail.com.

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