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Challengers attack Dixon on ethics issues during forum

City Council President Sheila Dixon found herself under attack on ethics questions last night as a trio of challengers questioned her hiring of a relative, dual employment and attempts to avoid a downsizing of the council.

The pointed criticisms came during a candidates forum attended by about 90 people at Western High School.

Dixon, who has strongly denied the ethical violations, spent much of her time at the microphone calmly and methodically describing her accomplishments in working with Mayor Martin O'Malley to stimulate development and create jobs.

"Close to $2 billion worth of projects have been approved over the last three years under my leadership, which has generated over 9,000 jobs," said Dixon, who was elected in 1999. "As a result of that, we have been seeing significant progress in Baltimore."

Councilwoman Catherine E. Pugh, one of Dixon's challengers in the Sept. 9 Democratic primary, opened her presentation with a barb as she glanced at Dixon, seated to her right.

"I want to first thank the League of Women Voters for holding this forum, but I also wanted to say good evening to Ms. Dixon because I believe this is the eighth or ninth forum, and she has participated in only three, so we are really glad to see you this evening," Pugh said.

Pugh, 53, a public relations executive, alluded to Dixon's hiring of her sister despite a city ethics law that apparently makes it illegal. Pugh also raised the issue of Dixon's decision to ignore a state ethics commission ruling that it was a conflict of interest for her to hold two government jobs during her first 2 1/2 years in office.

From December 1999 to June 2002, Dixon earned $80,000 as council president and $32,000 as a senior international trade specialist for the state Department of Business and Economic Development, helping to promote Maryland industry abroad.

"Having served on the City Council for four years, I am really concerned about the leadership that first of all does not understand that we need to follow the ethics laws of our city, and also does not understand that City Council president should be a full-time position," Pugh said.

Carl Stokes, 53, a health-care company vice president and former councilman, criticized Dixon and the council for trying to thwart the elimination of four council seats last year.

Dixon held a closed meeting Aug. 8, 2002, to discuss legislative alternatives to eliminating the positions. But the state's highest court threw out the council's efforts to derail the downsizing proposal - called Question P on the ballot and approved by voters in November - after ruling that Dixon's session violated the state's Open Meeting Act.

"You and the voters spoke loud and clear for change when you voted yes to the restructuring of the council," Stokes told the audience. "But the City Council resisted all change and tried to do a misdirection play on you, the voters. But you won out through the courts of the state of Maryland."

Dixon said last night that the court was wrong, that she did not violate the Open Meeting Act and that all of the council's meetings are held in public when there is a quorum present.

Joan Floyd, a community activist from the Remington neighborhood who is running as an independent for council president, accused the City Council of having contempt for the voters and the law.

"As far as I can see, our main obstacle is our present city government, with its shameful attitudes toward us, the citizens, and its shameful attitude toward the laws and principles of common decency and common sense," Floyd said.

Floyd will not be on the primary ballot but is running in the Nov. 2, 2004, general election.

Before the meeting, Dixon's campaign staff denied that she has been avoiding debates. Staff members said she had attended seven political debates and forums since July 10 and will attend at least four more before the primary.

The council president has said she is waiting on a city ethics commission decision about the hiring of her sister, Janice Dixon, as her $15,000-a-year, part-time assistant.

Dixon also has said that she decided more than a year ago to take unpaid leave from her part-time state job so she could focus all of her time on her City Council responsibilities.

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