In the only televised debate in the Baltimore City Council President's race, incumbent Sheila Dixon accused the state's highest court of being wrong and biased when it ruled last year that she broke the state's open-meetings laws.
The exchange taped Thursday between Dixon and three of her challengers will air today at 12:30 p.m. on Channel 11, WBAL-TV.
During a tense 30-minute question-and-answer session, challenger Carl Stokes accuses Dixon of lying to the League of Women Voters during a recent forum about a disputed City Council meeting.
Dixon organized the meeting Aug. 8 last year to discuss alternatives to a referendum that proposed to eliminate four council positions. But the league and others sued over the meeting, and the state's highest court later ruled that the meeting violated the state's Open Meetings Act.
The court's Sept. 30 decision, written by Court of Appeals Judge John C. Eldridge, helped usher in the most sweeping reform of the council in decades -- reducing it from 19 to 15 members and creating single-member districts.
"Last week, we were with the League of Women Voters, and you said that you had broken no open-meetings laws. But the League of Women Voters sued you ... and the state's highest court said you had broken open-meetings laws, had illegal meetings, had secret meetings," Stokes said.
"Why would you tell the League of Women Voters, who sued you and won, that you had not broken the law?" asked Stokes, a former city councilman running in the Sept. 9 primary.
Dixon, who was elected in 1999, said that the judge was wrong and that she opened up the meeting in her office as soon as a majority of council members were present -- an assertion that witnesses have said is not true.
"I'm not a lawyer. But a judge made that ruling. Does that mean that whenever a judge makes a ruling when an incident goes on, it's correct? No," Dixon said.
She went on to explain that the judge had a bias against local politicians because the appeals court last year ruled that an earlier redistricting proposal by Gov. Parris N. Glendening was illegal gerrymandering.
"When the judge got that case, someone looked at the state issue, and we felt the backlash from that," Dixon said.
Stokes replied: "But you didn't appeal the thing."
Dixon has been criticized by her challengers at a series of public forums not only for the open-meeting violation, but also for her decision to ignore a state ethics commission ruling that it was wrong for her to hold two government jobs, and for hiring a family member despite a city law that apparently makes this illegal. Dixon has said she did nothing wrong in any of these cases.
The other participants in the debate are City Councilwoman Catherine E. Pugh and the Rev. James Hugh Jones II.
Pugh, a public relations executive, called for the construction of more middle- and upper-class housing to boost the city's tax base, and a return of the "dollar house" program that the city used successfully in the 1970s to attract home buyers willing to renovate old properties.
Jones, who is making his first run for office, said that the city government needs to be more responsive to the voters.