Public perks, private benefit

Our view: Mayor's use of free tickets is not unusual, but it's not right either

August 08, 2012

Here are the best things you can say about Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's use of complementary tickets to shows at 1st Mariner Arena: Every mayor has done it, and the number of tickets she and her family used make up a relatively small portion of those her office doled out. And it's not like she was stealing gift cards from poor kids. Indeed, there are plenty of worse things she could do, but plenty of better ones, too. In the grand scheme of challenges Ms. Rawlings-Blake has faced — from budget deficits to out of control pension obligations — this doesn't amount to much. But "that's the way it's always been done" doesn't cut it as a reason for any of the big decisions the mayor makes, and it doesn't cut it for this, either.

Ms. Rawlings-Blake may think it unfair that The Sun and other local media outlets are focused on her use of free tickets to the arena and her use of the skyboxes at Ravens and Orioles games. This level of scrutiny has not been applied to previous mayors, but Ms. Rawlings-Blake has faced a string of criticism ever since her decision to take back Ravens tickets she had given to City Council President Bernard C. "Jack' Young after he questioned her focus on the Baltimore Grand Prix on The Sun's op-ed page. She's right. It's not right that previous mayors have not faced questions about their handling of free tickets. But the fact that the media failed to check up on whether Mayor Theodore McKeldin got comped for The Beatles in 1964 is no reason that it shouldn't do better now.

And how the mayor handles these matters is a legitimate public interest. Ms. Rawlings-Blake's spokesman, Ryan O'Doherty, insists that no taxpayer dollars are spent on these tickets. They are, he says, a routine matter of a city-owned arena providing tickets to the city's top official, something he says is "neither new nor extraordinary." But that doesn't mean the practice has no fiscal impact. If the tickets were not provided to the mayor's office, they could instead be sold to the general public.

Moreover, who gets what tickets says something about the mayor's management and priorities. Many of the tickets appear to wind up in the hands of community groups and schoolchildren, though the records are too vague to give any idea of which groups or which children and why. Many others are doled out to City Council members and legislators, which affords Ms. Rawlings-Blake with the opportunity to reward allies and withhold favors from opponents. (The extent to which she does this is unclear, as the records are not specific enough to say with authority which politicians benefit the most.)

It is evident from the records that, although the vast majority of tickets go to people not related to the mayor, she and her family do attend the better shows. She didn't take free tickets to any Baltimore Blast games, but she did see Sade and New Edition in concert, and her husband saw Rihanna. She took all 12 tickets her office got for Cirque du Solieil but none of the hundreds it received for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus.

These tickets are a public resource, and they should be used for the public benefit. That means there should be a transparent process by which they are handed out, and the records of who receives them should regularly be made public. And saying 14 tickets to the circus went to "Ms. Cookie" or that dozens of others were given to "community" doesn't cut it.

If the mayor has a legitimate business reason for attending an event — say, wooing a prospective employer or showing off the city to convention planners or international visitors — she should by all means be able to do so for free. But being mayor should not entitle her to public perks for her private amusement, and the fact that her predecessors did doesn't make it right. If she wants to see Jay-Z, she can buy a ticket.

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