Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley gave his longtime political nemesis an early Christmas gift yesterday when he single-handedly pushed to raise State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy's annual salary by nearly $83,000 - instantly making her the city's highest-paid employee.
But the raise - which will boost Jessamy's base salary from $142,055 to $225,000 - might have been more backhanded than benevolent, the latest and perhaps most bizarre twist in a years-long struggle between two of the city's most powerful personalities.
At the Board of Estimates meeting, O'Malley justified the nearly 60 percent raise - significantly higher than the 6.5 percent increase recommended by his finance department - by saying Jessamy has "a very, very tough job. This jurisdiction has the biggest challenge of any in our state."
He later tipped his hand, ever so slightly, to what might have been the real motivation behind the unexpected move: encouraging others to run against her.
"I don't think we've had a competitive race for this very important job since 1983," O'Malley said before the board voted to approve the raise. "Shouldn't that tell us something about how difficult this job is?"
As mayor, O'Malley draws a $125,000 salary - as governor, he will make $150,000 - but he is far from the highest-paid member of city government. Police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm draws $151,500, and City Solicitor Ralph S. Tyler makes $150,000. Baltimore Development Corp. President M.J. "Jay" Brodie makes $163,418, though that figure might include bonuses and other benefits, tax records show.
Charlene Cooper Boston, the interim chief executive officer of the city's schools, appears to come closest to Jessamy's new salary. The Baltimore school board is paying Boston a base salary of $212,000 - though she has the opportunity to earn tens of thousands in bonuses, according to information released by the school system.
Jessamy stressed yesterday that she never requested such a significant pay increase and repeatedly said she does not do her job for the money. Jessamy said she did not have staff at the Board of Estimates meeting yesterday - because no one expected O'Malley's move - and that she learned about the raise when she received a phone call about it hours later.
"It's not something that I had expected. I'm not going to try to determine his motives, but it's very interesting," Jessamy said when asked whether she thought political strategy was behind her pay increase. "If it's the salary that's attracting people, then they don't need to be in this position. This job requires someone who is committed to public service."
Four years ago, when Jessamy made a personal plea to the board for a pay raise, she received a different reaction. The board, which included O'Malley at the time, was considering a $20,000 raise. Jessamy argued that it wasn't enough money. In response, the board cut the raise to $15,000, according to news reports from the time.
By law, the state's attorney's salary is set every four years. Jessamy's office requested a raise this year, and the city's finance department recommended increasing her pay to $151,278 with subsequent 2 percent increases in 2008, 2009 and 2010. The finance department arrived at the figure by studying the pay of other Maryland prosecutors.
Baltimore County's state's attorney salary, at $185,000, is the next highest, according to the city's study. Jessamy, whose salary is paid by city taxpayers, will receive a higher salary than the top prosecutors in Philadelphia, Boston and Richmond, Va.
In pushing for the raise, O'Malley told the board that he thought the amount proposed by his finance department was too low. He asked why the director of the city's convention agency, the Baltimore Area Convention & Visitors Association, makes more money than the prosecutor.
"Sometimes in government, because it's not politically expedient, we don't pay the salaries that we need to for really, really important, lifesaving public safety functions," O'Malley said. "We pay more for people to attract conventions than we do in the most violent city in America that has an awful problem with revolving-door justice, where violent criminals go back on the street time and time and time again to murder people again, again, again and again."
Officials with BACVA would not say yesterday how much the agency's incoming executive director, Thomas J. Noonan, will make. They did confirm that his base salary will be lower than $225,000. The past director, Leslie Doggett, made $216,538, according to tax records - though that figure might include benefits.
At least four of five members of the Board of Estimates - including the mayor's two appointees and City Council President Sheila Dixon - voted for the raise, which will begin Jan. 1. City Comptroller Joan M. Pratt said that she respects "the fact that all elected officials have challenging jobs" and then said she would "defer" to the finance department's judgment. Later, her staff said that she abstained on the vote.
Dixon, who sparred with Jessamy most recently at an October meeting of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, used the vote to take another jab.
"Hopefully, as a result of this increase in salary, we'll see the state's attorney's office and the Police Department working a lot closer and we can reduce the crime that we face on a daily basis," said Dixon, who will serve out the remainder of O'Malley's term next year. "It's more than just this Police Department that has to go out to help in this effort, in this fight."
"Amen," O'Malley responded.
Jessamy and O'Malley have had a rocky relationship for years, which some believe has hurt the city's efforts to combat crime. O'Malley was hired by Jessamy after he graduated from law school in 1988. When former State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms left for a job in state government, O'Malley unsuccessfully challenged Jessamy for the chance to serve out the remainder of his term.
The relationship soured again in 2001 when O'Malley, upset that Jessamy dropped corruption charges against a police officer, unleashed a profanity-laced tirade in which he accused her of not having the "guts to get off her ass and go in and try this case."
Since then, O'Malley's allies have often blamed Jessamy for not prosecuting certain crimes. Jessamy and her staff have countered that the Police Department makes "false arrests" and that it often does not bring enough evidence to court to make prosecution possible.
Decoding the governor-elect's intentions yesterday was complicated by the fact that he dashed from the room as soon as the Board of Estimates adjourned. Before the election, O'Malley's custom was to take questions from reporters after the meeting.
Stephan W. Fogleman ran a campaign against Jessamy in this year's primary. While he argued that there should have been more time for public comment before approving the raise - "transparency in government is always the best policy," he said - he said the job probably required a higher salary.
"It's an awfully tough job," Fogleman said. "It is perhaps the most thankless job in the state."
Under a salary increase approved by the Board of Estimates yesterday, Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy would be the highest-paid official in the city. Here's a look at other top earners and their base salaries:
Baltimore police commissioner: $151,500
Baltimore city solicitor: $150,000
CEO Baltimore City schools: $212,000
Baltimore County state's attorney: $185,000
Philadelphia's prosecutor: $150,984
[Source: Baltimore Department of Finance]