NAACP raises questions about mayoral succession

Leaders of the Maryland NAACP, worried that a Baltimore mayor's criminal conviction could result in the appointment of a white or Republican leader who may not fully represent the majority black and Democratic city, are asking state lawmakers to strip the governor of authority to permanently fill the office.

The request, made in a resolution adopted at a state meeting of the civil rights group last weekend, marks the first time a mainstream organization has raised questions about succession should Baltimore Mayor Dixon be convicted of any of the nine charges she faces. Dixon has been indicted for theft and perjury and the first of two trials is scheduled for early next month.

"There is that possibility of a conviction, and we want to know those protocols that are in place," said Elbridge James, the political action chairman of the state National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "If it looks like it is going to rain, I am going to buy an umbrella."

Still, it is not clear that the resolution or a law change is warranted. According to Dan Friedman, an assistant attorney general who is counsel to the General Assembly, the governor does not have the authority to make an appointment.

Instead, the state constitution defers to the city's charter, he said, which elevates the city council president to be mayor in case of a vacancy. That's how Dixon became mayor in 2007 after Martin O'Malley, her predecessor, was elected governor.

Marvin L. Cheatham, the president of the Baltimore Chapter of the NAACP, introduced the resolution because he heard an attorney on a radio program discussing a lack of clarity on succession if Dixon were to be convicted and sentenced.

"Our concern is who would the governor appoint?" Cheatham said. "Here you have a predominantly African-American city. What if the governor appointed somebody white? ... Would he appoint someone Irish to be the mayor?"

Cheatham also said he worried that a future Republican governor could appoint someone from his party to lead a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans 9 to 1. "Would not the Republican governor have the ability to pick a Republican mayor?" he asked. "We just think there are some unanswered questions about the process," Cheatham said.

The resolution passed "nearly unanimously" with little debate from the 150 or so delegates who attended the meeting, James said. It lays out two options, asking either for the governor to defer to the city's charter and elevate the city council president to mayor; or a revision to state law to prevent an emergency mayoral appointee by the governor to run for the office in the next election.

Rick Abbruzzese, a spokesman for Gov. Martin O'Malley, reiterated that the governor cannot appoint a mayor of Baltimore, and did not answer other questions about the resolution. The adoption of the resolution was first reported by the online news Web site Investigative Voice.

The state constitution is difficult to follow on the topic of succession, Friedman said. One section of the document indicates that the governor has the authority to appoint a new leader should the sitting mayor be convicted and sentenced. However, that section has been superseded by a separate portion which clearly defers matters to the city's charter, Friedman said.

"If the [city charter] provides for an automatic succession, then that is what happens," Friedman said. "Baltimore's charter provides for that." Should Dixon be removed from office, City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake would become mayor. The city's charter then directs the remaining city council members to elect a new city council president.

Cheatham said he wants the attorney general's office to issue a written opinion on the matter.

The mayoral vacancy would occur if Dixon is convicted of a felony or a misdemeanor that relates to her official duties and sentenced. Dixon faces seven theft-related charges for using gift cards that were donated to her office for distribution to needy families. She's also accused of failing to report lavish gifts from her then-boyfriend on her city ethics forms.

The removal provision of the state constitution could also apply to city councilwoman Helen L. Holton, a West Baltimore Democrat. She is charged with two campaign finance violations and set to be tried Dec. 7.

Should Holton be removed from office, the city's charter directs the remaining city council members to elect a new council member to finish out the term. The city's next general election is in November 2011.

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