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Baltimore mayor's resignation is less than democratic

Sheila Dixon is stepping down as mayor of Baltimore, and that’s probably for the best. Already convicted of a misdemeanor for stealing donated gift cards intended for poor children, she was facing yet another trial on perjury charges. She sure doesn’t pass my personal test of public integrity -- not by a long shot.

What gives me a little bit of pause, though, is the way Dixon’s ouster has come about: by means of a protracted criminal investigation, followed by a plea bargain in which she traded her resignation for leniency.

When state prosecutor Robert Rohrbaugh declared, upon leaving the courthouse, “It’s time for the city of Baltimore to move forward with a new mayor,” I wondered: Is that really his call?

In a democracy, the people make the political decisions. Ideally, they make them at elections. But now, as a result of a closed-door pact made under pressure, Dixon is out and Baltimore’s City Council president steps up to take her place.

Of course, majority rule is not the only goal of a democracy. The public has a pretty strong interest in clean government as well. And sometimes prosecutors have to step up to protect it. We’ve been through deals, or attempted deals, like this before, as in the plea bargain that brought down then-Vice President Spiro T. Agnew in 1973, or Jesse Jackson’s unsuccessful brokering of a resignation-for-leniency deal between Marion Barry and U.S. Attorney Jay Stephens during the then-D.C. mayor’s cocaine case two decades ago. And then there’s federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald’s case against Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Still, given that this is a recurring issue, it’s worth giving a little more thought to the question of who gets to decide who’s too corrupt to serve.

Preferably, the rules governing that determination would be set in law, independent of any particular case. For example, a city or state might say that a felony conviction is automatic grounds for removal. Or there could be provisions for recall, or, as in the case of the president of the United States, impeachment.

Part of the problem in Baltimore is that the City Charter does not prescribe any method for expelling a sitting mayor or member of the City Council who might venture into corrupt activities. The Maryland Constitution provides for suspension without pay of any elected official who has been convicted of a felony or serious misdemeanor related to official duties. Final removal only kicks in upon exhaustion of all appeals. Therefore, the only way to get Dixon out of office -- even temporarily -- was to convict her of a crime or to threaten to do so. (Under longstanding Maryland practice, a conviction is only considered final upon sentencing, which is why Dixon’s gift-card conviction had not already triggered the Constitutional provision.)

This rule gave 12 jurors power to determine Dixon’s tenure in office -- not the most democratic method, and hardly a predictable one. Not surprisingly, both defendant and prosecutor preferred a more controllable but even less democratic forum: plea bargaining.

The terms of the deal with Dixon show that Rohrbaugh, contemplating the inherent uncertainties of a jury trial, placed top priority on the political goal of ousting the mayor -- as opposed to, say, more conventional criminal-justice goals, such as forcing her to do jail time or accept personal responsibility.

Dixon, for her part, protected her vital interests. Finishing out the term to which she was elected was not one of them, apparently. She made a special concession known as an Alford plea, which is an admission that the government could prove its case, not an admission of guilt. No apologies. If she does community service, donates to charity and otherwise keeps her nose clean, she’ll end up with no criminal record, retain her $83,000 per year pension -- and even have a chance at a political comeback in two years.

To be sure, even had Baltimore residents been allowed to vote on Dixon's political future, the end result may have been the same. According to The Baltimore Sun, the general sentiment was that she should go. But voters should be able to have their say through more direct means than opinion polls or interviews with the local paper.

Even as someone who would probably not vote for Sheila Dixon, I sort of hope she tries again in 2012. At least then the citizens would have a chance to pass their own judgment on her.

By Charles Lane  | January 8, 2010; 2:45 PM ET
Categories:  Lane  | Tags:  Charles Lane  
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Once in awhile the prosecutors and police can be the moral turpitude that sets up a citizen for their own power and corruptions perpetuation.

Hawaii vs police woman Bonnie Burke reversed in 2004 calling every official in Hawaii bottom to top corrupt.
So much for who tells us Obama is valid.
The policewomen who were raped were muzzled by a County judge, as the women citizens harmed by the same police department and cronies , were put through real hell not to tell.
Anyone they thought might talk, faced set up and squeezes with no safety for themselves or their families.

Not everything is as it seems all of the time.

Posted by: dottydo | January 8, 2010 3:52 PM | Report abuse

Generally all the politicians are unfit to serve.

Posted by: jameschirico | January 8, 2010 4:01 PM | Report abuse

"But voters should be able to have their say through more direct means than opinion polls or interviews with the local paper."

I actually think that she should have been prosecuted to the full extent of the law. No matter how long it took or if she stayed in office the whole time.

We have far too much political finagaling going on everywhere with no repercussions. Too many deals are struck to let "white collar" criminals, including politicians, get off with resigning, or a minor fine or a slap on the wrist.

What is to stop the next person from committing a crime or perpetrating the same kind of malfeasance?

Pathetic. And I say this as a citizen of Georgia who has had far too many politicians misbehave and be allowed to resign rather than face consequences for criminal or ethical misconduct. It is time for there to be real consequences for politicians - like jail, loss of pensions and health insurance, hefty fines that leave them in the lower middle class by the time they have paid it.

Posted by: amelia45 | January 8, 2010 6:25 PM | Report abuse

Evidently, that would include Bernacke, Geithner, Larry Summers, Phil Gramm, basically the "free traitors", the Neoconservatives and Transnationalist nut cases from both parties. We could do a lot to clean up Washington if we simply admitted that lobbyists are part of a criminal enterprise and arrested them wholesale and execute every one of them who has ever given an "undeclared campaign donation" or outright bribe to a politician. What corporation, Wall Street, and the elite are engaged in is nothing short of treason and you have to wonder why we aren't treating these swine like we treated Benedict Arnold in his time. This is war, a war to either rescue this country or watch it go the way of other societies that tried free trade. They all failed, but they failed in violence and death and human misery, explosively, with unpredictable results that spread beyond their borders. Think of the Weimar Republic or France in the early 1800's. We are in the same predicament as those societies.

Posted by: mibrooks27 | January 8, 2010 6:29 PM | Report abuse

The Mayor is a criminal. She pleaded down the charges to avoid prison. She should not be held to a different standard then the people she so poorly governed. She is just another example of the arrogant politicians that think they can do anything they want without repercussions.

Posted by: Pilot1 | January 9, 2010 10:11 AM | Report abuse

A public figure should resign when faced with these circumstances, thinking only of who he/she represents.

Unfortunately, she thought only of herself and did a great dis-service (and wasted money and tax dollars) to all those involved.

You get what you vote for...

Posted by: ernielayman581 | January 9, 2010 10:28 AM | Report abuse

only a dem would make this complaint...
forget that this dem was corrupt...
we don't need people who have to have the public trust betray the people...

Posted by: DwightCollins | January 9, 2010 1:29 PM | Report abuse

"In a democracy, the people make the political decisions. Ideally, they make them at elections. But now, as a result of a closed-door pact made under pressure,..." Let's see closed-door pact, say similar to what the Democrats are doing in Congress with health care bills? Can we safely say that we are on the verge of a new democracy where those that "rule" the country are the ones in positions of power and believe themselves superior to we mere "citizens"? A mayor getting ousted rather than put in prison where she belongs is just the tip of the rather large and dangerous trend in US politics. You should be standing on top of your desk yelling this.

Posted by: staterighter | January 9, 2010 2:30 PM | Report abuse

I fully agree with Pilot1. The jury decided her guilt, not her career path. Getting to keep her pension proves that--for those in office--crime pays. Everyone else goes to jail.

Posted by: krrush | January 10, 2010 8:14 AM | Report abuse

"In a democracy, the people make the political decisions."

I would remind you that, while the US engages in some democratic processes, we are not a democracy. We are a republic.

Posted by: Schaum | January 10, 2010 12:57 PM | Report abuse

She was a typical Baltimore machine politician.

I'm not sure what the author is arguing; that despite being guilty that it's up to the voters to make the change?

By that logic, Richard Nixon shouldn't have resigned.

Why you defend a petty thief is an interesting story; is it because you have a personal interest? Or do you see this crooked politico as someone who was unjustly wronged?

Posted by: Ombudsman1 | January 10, 2010 1:45 PM | Report abuse

Pilot1, Sheila Dixon was found guilty of a misdemeanor. Since when does that make one a criminal? The reason she stepped down is because she was going to be standing trial in March for purjury (failing to report the gifts she receieved from the developer. It was a catch 22. It was most likely that she was going to lose that verdict which would have put her in the position of being a convicted felon, being forcibly removed from office by the State, losing her pension, and possibly serving prison time.

Posted by: jamesabutler2 | January 10, 2010 4:44 PM | Report abuse

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