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Two facing council president in primary pledge to oppose nepotism on city panel

Two challengers to City Council President Sheila Dixon recently pledged to oppose nepotism in city government, criticizing Dixon and others for hiring relatives despite prohibitions in city law.

Former Councilman Carl Stokes and Councilwoman Catherine E. Pugh, both facing Dixon in the Sept. 9 primary, said they would refrain from hiring their relatives and urged their fellow council members to follow suit.

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The city's ethics laws make it illegal for elected officials to make decisions that financially benefit their sisters, brothers, parents, spouses or minor children.

Despite the provision, three council members have hired siblings as assistants: Dixon, John L. Cain and Pamela V. Carter. The city's ethics commission is set to meet on Aug. 25 to consider the issue.

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Some defenders of Dixon and the other council members with relatives on their payroll - including Mayor Martin O'Malley - argue that hiring within the family has been a practice on the council for years, without anyone complaining about it.

Dixon, who was elected in 1999 after serving 12 years representing West Baltimore, said she would wait to see what the Board of Ethics recommends after its meeting later this month.

"I have done nothing wrong," Dixon said. "I will make a decision once they [the ethics board] make a ruling. ... I will rectify whatever it is I need to upon the ruling of the ethics commission."

She dismissed the criticism of her political foes, saying "People will say all of that to get a seat" on the council. She asked The Sun to stop writing about the issue until the Board of Ethics rules.

Pugh, a public relations executive elected to the council four years ago, said the leader of the council should play a stronger role by reminding the members of the ethics laws, including those banning nepotism.

"The president has the responsibility to inform the council people of the ethics rules," Pugh said. "If the ethics laws say you don't hire relatives, you don't hire relatives. That's already on the books. I am not looking to overturn that."

Stokes, who placed second in the 1999 Democratic mayoral primary, said he regards Dixon's hiring of her sister as a clear violation of both the ethics law and the City Council's code of conduct, which also discourages nepotism.

Stokes said that he would go further than just reminding council members about the prohibition. He said he would pursue whatever legal actions might be available to force council members to dismiss siblings or other prohibited family members by the start of the next term, in December 2004.

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"It's against the law," said Stokes. "It's a big deal, no small matter. To say, 'Well, it's been going on for years' - that's the politician's worst excuse."

O'Malley, who served on the City Council for eight years before being elected mayor in 1999, said that perhaps the city's ethics laws should be clarified and updated, and the matter of hiring relatives debated.

His administration introduced a bill last month to the council to substantially revise the ethics law. The bill would prohibit council members from hiring adult children.

But he added that it's unfair to attack council members now for a practice that has been going on for as long as anyone can remember.

"It's has been a tradition and a practice for a long time, hiring [family] for part-time clerical positions," said O'Malley. "Nobody has ever called it into question in the past."


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