At last, rule of law gets equal time

The Baltimore Sun

Former Baltimore police Commissioner Kevin Clark was fired on Nov. 10, 2004, when then-Mayor Martin O'Malley said that domestic violence allegations against Clark, while unsubstantiated, "distracted" the imported New Yorker from effectively doing his job.

I knew more than a year before that Clark wasn't long for the job. It was when he attended a fellowship meeting at the Union Baptist Church coffeehouse. A man questioned Clark about Baltimore's "investment" in black youth.

"The only investment y'all made in 'em is that jail down there," the man all but snarled. "Y'all plan to fill that, right?"

"I don't fill it," Clark answered. "Behavior fills it."

Clark struck me then as a man given to uttering random statements of truth. That might well have worked for him as police commissioner in some cities, but not here in Baltimore. The man asking the question is one of those types who believes the entire criminal justice system is some sort of vast, anti-black-male conspiracy, and there are quite a few people around these parts - in public office and out - who probably agree with him.

But O'Malley didn't fire Clark because of random utterances of truth. According to O'Malley, it was that distraction business. According to Clark, it was because the former commissioner had begun investigations into criminal behavior of at least one city official who was a friend of O'Malley's. And Clark had another point:

The ex-top cop says he was fired illegally.

Clark filed a lawsuit contending as much and demanding that he be reinstated. On Nov. 18, 2004, Circuit Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan ruled on Clark's request that he be reinstated as commissioner. Kaplan denied it, and said the rest of the lawsuit had maybe a 2 in 10 chance of succeeding.

Lawyers for the city argued that Clark voluntarily signed a contract that gave the mayor a right to fire him without cause, and in April 2005, Baltimore Circuit Judge Albert J. Matricciani Jr. ruled on whether Clark had been fired illegally. The provision in Clark's contract giving the mayor the power to fire him without cause was, Matricciani said, "valid and enforceable."

The Court of Special Appeals disagreed with Matricciani in June 2006, citing that pesky little thing called state law. Apparently, the contract giving Baltimore's mayor the right to fire a police commissioner without cause violates it. On Thursday the Court of Appeals upheld the Court of Special Appeals ruling. Yesterday Clark was back in town to talk to the media about the recent ruling.

Actually, it was Clark's lawyers who did most of the talking. But I can't blame Clark for dummying up for much of the 11:30 a.m. news conference. If I had a kick-booty legal team of A. Dwight Pettit, Neal Janey and Stuart Simms as my mouthpieces, I'd dummy up, too.

Pettit is a superb defense attorney; Simms is the former state's attorney for Baltimore; Janey used to be Baltimore's city solicitor. These men know what state law says and what it doesn't say, especially on the matter of when and why Baltimore's police commissioner can be fired.

"What was violated," Pettit said yesterday, "was his rights of due process and for an adversarial proceeding." Also violated, Pettit said, were Clark's rights to counsel, to respond to allegations against him and for a public airing of exactly what he did wrong.

Janey was even more specific. He compared what didn't happen in Clark's firing to what did happen when former Baltimore school Superintendent Roland Patterson was fired in the 1970s. According to Janey, Clark was entitled to:

Notification of the charges against him.

Specification of the charges against him.

An opportunity to have the charges investigated.

A public hearing similar to a trial.

City officials have contended - when O'Malley was mayor and now - that because Clark signed the contract voluntarily, he can't accept some provisions while rejecting others. O'Malley, now governor, has said he supports a law that would give Baltimore's mayor "the same hiring and removal authority that other county executives have."

Here's a better idea: How about Baltimoreans requiring our city officials to draw up contracts that actually comply with state law? Is that so difficult? Isn't that why we elect these people?

The law as it now stands is a good one. (So is the law requiring that the state school board, not the governor, appoint the state school superintendent. O'Malley was opposed to that one, too, until he thought better of it.) I can see why a mayor of Baltimore might just want to give a police commissioner the boot without cause, but I also see that the law preventing it is designed to protect good police commissioners from bad mayors.

Good mayors can always think of ways to get rid of bad police commissioners without violating the law.

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