The pay raise was legal, but was it right?

The Baltimore Sun

In yesterday's warmish temperatures, the fur coat stayed home, or at least was not on mayoral display. So it conceivably could have looked even worse when Mayor Sheila Dixon set out to defend an increase in her own salary, even as she's ordering cutbacks in spending and services throughout the city.

Appearances, as our famously well-attired mayor obviously knows, matter.

But how on earth do you dress up a 2.5 pay increase for the mayor, the City Council and the comptroller at a time when throughout the city businesses are failing, people are losing their jobs and no one knows who or what is next to go?

You don't. Or, rather, you do something other than talk about how very legal the process was by which this pay raise was enacted or what a relative bargain the city is getting for this outlay.

What you do is turn the clock back and say why you deserve this increase before you actually get it, not after the fact, after the newspaper discovers that it was approved at a meeting that was nominally open but conducted in some kind of secret DaVinci Code language.

This to me is the real outrage - I don't so much begrudge Dixon and company this relatively small cost-of-living bump, but that, as The Baltimore Sun reported yesterday, the raise was slipped through at a Board of Estimates meeting held in the relative dark of night that is the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.

The agenda item gave no indication that the board was voting on a pay raise for Dixon, City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Comptroller Joan Pratt and the City Council members. Rather, it listed "salary adjustments" for pay grades "88E, 87E, 83E and 81E."

Huh? My cereal box didn't come with that particular secret decoder ring. The board, though, apparently was clued in - three of its members, Dixon, Rawlings-Blake and Pratt, also belong to three of those pay grades, so each decorously abstained from voting on her own salary adjustment. The remaining two board members voted yea on all counts.

Do I need to mention that those two members are appointed by the mayor? Or that the so-called independent commission that recommends salary levels for the city's elected officials was also appointed by those same elected officials, or at least the ones who held those positions in 2007?

There may be no way around this. I'm not sure there's any way to set the salary of elected officials without it falling prey to politics. Voters in 2006 amended the City Charter to create a commission on compensation as a way of getting around the obvious pitfall of officials setting their own salaries. The first thing the commission did was recommend an 18 percent to 26 percent increase in 2007 salaries to bring Baltimore in line with comparable cities, plus an annual 2.5 percent cost-of-living increase in subsequent years.

That's what the officials got on that Wednesday before Thanksgiving, and Dixon made the point yesterday that it was all very legal. And, she added, by law she and her colleagues have to accept the increases.

I'd like to see an actual ruling on that one, but the point is, what's legal is not always what's right. It's pretty hard to ask everyone to tighten their belts - the salaries of middle managers at City Hall have been frozen as part of current cutbacks, and police overtime is being curtailed - but to go ahead and accept a pay raise that was recommended before the whole economic picture changed.

"They did not turn down their raises," Dixon noted of the unionized city workers who are getting 3 percent pay raises.

But as the head of the city, why is Dixon following her underlings when she should be leading them? No small part of leadership is the stagecraft of office, the striking of the right note at the right time, the symbolic gesture. Giving up her $3,700 "adjustment" would go a long way in getting city employees - and the city as a whole - behind her at a time when cuts are necessary and promise to be deep.

I don't think people are so small-minded that they want Dixon to offer work for the $1-a-year salary that the auto execs, belatedly, have offered to take in return for a multibillion-dollar taxpayer bailout. She's the mayor, not a civic nun who took a vow of poverty along with the oath of office. No need for her to show up in a tattered coat or with holes in her Choos to signal her sincerity to do her part to help the city through the financial mess.

And yet given Dixon's history of personal extravagances - namely, the out-of-town trips and furs from a developer doing business with the city that figure into the state prosecutor's investigation of City Hall spending - she is particularly vulnerable on any issue that involves monetary gain.

I don't doubt that Dixon is on call 24/7 as the city's mayor, or even that she believes, as she said yesterday, that she's "made many sacrifices in the last 20 years to do this work full-time."

At a time when many other hard-working citizens are making sacrifices of their own, maybe it's time for Dixon to make one more.

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