The people's skybox

Our view: State, city need written policies for stadium tickets, food

March 20, 2012

If there was a shocker in the recent accounting of the spending on food at the governor's and mayor's skyboxes at M&T Bank Stadium, it wasn't that taxpayers are footing the bill for public officials to chow down on beef tenderloin and crabcakes. The surprise was just how little such gourmet grazing costs. Because the state and city governments' deals with the stadium provide them not only free skyboxes but also food at cost, both the governor and mayor fed hundreds of people for under $3,000 a season. That really puts the price of a stadium hot dog into context.

Mayors and governors have been using skyboxes at M&T Bank Stadium and Oriole Park since they were built, and the practice attracted relatively little notice until a recent flap in which Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blakedisinvited City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Youngto a Ravens playoff game after he wrote an op-ed that was critical of her decision to pursue a second Baltimore Grand Prix. The subsequent accounting revealed that some of the time the governor and mayor invite people to their boxes for reasons most taxpayers would probably agree with; high-performing government workers, good-doing nonprofits, and business owners thinking of expanding their companies here have all benefited from the perk. At other times, the invitees seem to serve little public purpose — they are family members, friends, political contributors and fellow elected officials.

It's possible to debate whether a mayor or governor should have carte blanche about whom to invite to the games. Substantial amounts of public money was used to build the stadiums, but as part of their lease agreements, the Ravens and Orioles provide the suites for the mayor and governor for free. The government watchdog group Common Cause has called on Ms. Rawlings-Blake and Gov.Martin O'Malleyto develop written policies for how the boxes are used to prevent a public asset from being used for "private and partisan" purposes. That's not unreasonable, and neither is another of Common Cause's suggestions: routinely making the names of the guests public. That way, voters can judge for themselves whether an elected official is using the skybox well.

It can be done. WBAL-TV's Jayne Miller reported in February that the mayor of Philadelphia has a written policy for that city's skyboxes that prohibits their use for political fundraising, bans giving tickets to contractors and sets aside a certain portion of the seats for nonprofit organizations. Philadelphia also publishes lists of who uses the skyboxes on a quarterly basis.

The matter of paying for food is even more clear-cut. Even if the dollar amounts involved are relatively small, it's important for the public to have confidence that direct expenditures of taxpayer funds serve a greater purpose than entertaining elected officials' friends and campaign donors. And a policy for how to handle the food is not at all difficult to imagine. The IRS has rules for what constitutes a business expense that can be deducted from taxes. Companies have policies detailing when employees can seek reimbursement for meals and entertainment and when they can't. The same kind of standards should apply to food in the city and state government skyboxes.

These stadium suites are not part of our elected officials' compensation packages. They are meant to serve some public good, not the personal interests of the mayor and governor. Those officials should be judged on how well they use them, just as they are judged on how well they use other public resources. Just because previous mayors and governors have squandered them doesn't mean Ms. Rawlings-Blake and Mr. O'Malley can't set a precedent of finding more creative and productive ways to put the skyboxes to use.

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