If Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's decision to strip City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young of his tickets to a Ravens playoff game didn't make it clear enough, the list of those who have been invited to share the city skybox this season confirms it: One of the perks of being Baltimore's chief executive is that you get to run the municipal equivalent of the popular kids table in a middle school cafeteria. The guest list, recently released by City Hall in response to a Sun public information act request, includes the mayor's family and friends, her political supporters and fellow politicians who vote her way. And as Mr. Young learned after publicly disagreeing with her about the Baltimore Grand Prix, favors bestowed can also be withheld.
The mayor's office's defense of this practice is twofold: The city isn't paying for the skybox and Ms. Rawlings-Blake is using it in exactly the same way her predecessors did. The argument that the skybox is free isn't exactly true; taxpayers subsidized the stadium's construction to the tune of $200 million, and the city does have to pay for concessions. And the fact that previous mayors used the skybox in a way that served little, if any, public purpose doesn't mean this mayor has to squander the resource, too.
One can only assume that the city's skybox at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the other publicly-subsidized city stadium, is used somewhat more liberally. The key difference, of course, is that tickets to Orioles games represent far less of a perk, not only because there are 81 home games in the regular season (as opposed to the Ravens precious 8, or 10 if you include the preseason) but because the cellar-dwelling baseball franchise doesn't exactly pack them in like it did in more successful times.
Still, it's not hard to place a monetary value on a skybox ticket for professional football or baseball. One need only check Ticketmaster or StubHub.com to find out. Here's a clue: Premium NFL seats are really, really valuable, especially during a season when the Ravens are playoff contenders. And if Ms. Rawlings-Blake lacks imagination, selling the tickets to the highest bidder and using the proceeds to finance vital city services would be a far more reasonable outcome than paying off political supporters. How many city recreation centers might the money keep open? Maybe no more than one or two, but that accomplishment alone would be enough to justify an auction.
Perhaps an even better outcome would be for the mayor to simply treat them as a public resource made possible by taxpayer dollars (or more precisely, by lottery proceeds that might otherwise have been used to finance government programs). Rather than thinking of them as her own, she should consider them as she might Druid Hill Park or the Washington Monument, something in which current and future city residents share a tiny piece of ownership. How about handing them out to top-performing city employees, the best government innovators, the handful of teachers and principals who received top grades in recent performance evaluations or simply to business owners considering investing in Baltimore locations, new or existing?
In the mayor's recent inaugural address, she proposed attracting 10,000 more families to Baltimore over the next decade, surely a worthwhile cause if the city is to expand its property tax base, lower tax rates and revitalize neighborhoods. Here's an idea: Offer the newcomers a chance at Ravens tickets, to be collected the day they settle on their new home. In the current real estate market, motivated sellers have offered similar incentives and probably more. Over the course of a decade (not counting playoff games) the city could shuffle 3,000 new Baltimoreans through the box.
Finally, if the mayor thinks such restrictions are unreasonable and that the perks of her current office are modest enough (and the work hard enough) to justify the current self-indulgent approach, she ought to have a chat with any CEOs hanging out in the adjacent skyboxes to find out how they decide who gets a ticket. What she'll find out is that private companies often hand them over to their marketing and sales departments to help drum up business or at least to reward high-performing employees. Private sector or public — or even within the middle school cafeteria — there's still no such thing as a free lunch.