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Holding the door for the mayor for 60K

Times are so tough in Baltimore that Sheila Dixon was shamed into giving at least part of her 2.5 percent pay raise to charity.

But apparently not so tough that the city can't spend a total of $120,000 a year on two "special assistants" to the mayor and consider giving each of them 5 percent raises.

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One of them is a potential witness in the state prosecutor's case against Dixon.

Today the Board of Estimates will consider raises for Bobby Potts and Howard Dixon, two retired city police officers who essentially serve as the mayor's body men. They do not act as the mayor's drivers or security guards, duties performed by current cops. Howard Dixon (no, he's not related to the mayor) and Potts escort the mayor to meetings and public events, supervise maintenance of the mayoral SUV and advise her on public safety issues, according to the board's agenda.

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The raises would bring their salaries to $60,566 a year. The board would have to waive a salary cap normally imposed on retirees, something it has done for the men in the past.

In January 2008, state prosecutors subpoenaed Howard Dixon in their City Hall corruption probe.

Dixon spokesman Scott Peterson said the mayor would abstain from the vote. So you know it's all on the up-and-up.

With friends like these ...

Michael Phelps really knows how to pick his pals.

I speak not of the hearty University of South Carolina partiers who in early November apparently furnished him with bong, weed and - after one of them snapped and sold his photo - an international dope flap.

Nor do I refer to Caroline Pal, the over-tattooed, underdressed Vegas cocktail waitress Phelps took home to Mom for Thanksgiving. (In retrospect, I'll bet Debbie Phelps is wishing he'd settled down with the gal a few weeks earlier.)

No, the friends who've really let Michael Phelps down are his agents at Octagon, the marketing Brain Trust that offered a British tabloid "extraordinary incentives" to kill the bong story, according to the paper, News of the World.

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Octagon spokesman Clifford Bloxham "offered us an extraordinary deal not to publish our story, saying Phelps would become our columnist for three years, host events and get his sponsors to advertise with us," the paper reported. "In return, he asked that we kill Phelps' bong picture.

"Bloxham said: 'It's seeing if something potentially very negative for Michael could turn into something very positive for the News of the World.' "

Finally, solutions for what ails the newspaper industry! A fresh columnist. New advertisers. Extortion.

Added bonus: By squeezing columnistry into Phelps' eat-sleep-swim regimen, the gig might get him off pot and hooked instead on phonics.

"The characterization of the conversation between Octagon and News of the World is misleading," read a statement that Octagon's Scott Horner provided to The New York Times this week. "They're a tabloid, and we have no intention of getting into a shouting match with a tabloid."

Horner provided essentially the same statement to me yesterday, only this time it said the newspaper account was "inaccurate."

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So Octagon had managed to beef up its non-denial-denial.

I'd expect no less from the professionals paid to help Phelps navigate his strange, new, above-water existence. He was better off at loose ends in Vegas.

Unflappable to the end

Joe Biden was right: Barack Obama was tested at the dawn of his administration. Not by an international crisis, but by a nail-biter of a Super Bowl.

And the No-Dramatist-in-Chief hardly batted an eye.

"I'm telling you, I can't think of any game I've seen lately that should have brought out all of the excitement you might have in your body," said Rep. Elijah Cummings, one of about 70 people invited to watch the game at the White House.

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"The entire time, he's calm," said Cummings, who sat right behind Obama in the White House movie theater. "He's calm and cool as a cucumber. No matter what happened - if there was a touchdown, an interception - the most you would see him do was shake his head. Everybody else was jumping up and down, hollering."

Not that Obama was neutral. He'd told the group from the outset that he was rooting for the Steelers, Cummings said.

"When Arizona took the lead, everybody thought he'd have a reaction. No reaction. He kind of looked back and said, 'I'll be fine.' When [Pittsburgh] scored the winning touchdown, there was no jumping up and down. He just stayed seated and sort of shook his head."

Then he stood, raised his hands up in the air "very calmly," and said, "Thank you all for coming."

Move aside, Springsteen

There was Bruce Springsteen, belting out the Super Bowl halftime show that the NFL and fans had long yearned for. And then, suddenly, there was a much smaller Bruce Springsteen on one side of the screen, and on the other, the Maryland Lottery, plucking numbered pingpong balls.

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WBAL-TV public affairs director Wanda Draper said the station intended to show the Pick 3, Pick 4 and Bonus Match 5 drawings later or "crawl" the results on the bottom of the screen. But through some sort of mix-up, it went the "double box" route instead.

"It was only the best half-time show in history, which, I know, isn't saying much, but it was vintage Springsteen," Draper said. "But all of a sudden, Springsteen shrinks on my screen and I have to sit through three different lottery selections. My head almost flew off, I was so angry."

Also not amused: state lottery director Buddy Roogow. He was watching the game with friends, and they let him have it. "I'm a Springsteen fan, and I did cringe," he said. "I wish the drawing had been crawled."

Then there were 11

City Paper laid off one of its reporters yesterday, less than a week after The Examiner announced it was closing. That leaves the free alt weekly with an editorial staff of just 11. "When you have a staff as small as ours, it's still significant," said CP Editor Lee Gardne r. The reporter was Jeff Anderson, who joined the paper 16 months ago.


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