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.
| January 8, 2010; 2:45 PM ET
Categories: Lane | Tags: Charles Lane
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