Common Cause: Mayor's skybox should be 'people's skybox'

A government watchdog group said Thursday that Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has politicized invitations to her office's Ravens skybox, and urged her to include more working-class residents.

"The mayor has made the choice to turn this into a political skybox and not the people's skybox," said Susan Wichmann, the director of Common Cause Maryland. "We call on the mayor, going forward, to use the skybox to highlight good work being done by people in the city. There's no reason why she couldn't invite the firefighters and the police officers and the good students and the teachers."

But a Rawlings-Blake spokesman said the mayor has used the skybox to help spur economic development by meeting with business leaders and has invited a wide range of people to games.

"The mayor, like many other mayors across the country, has invited elected officials, hardworking city employees, youth workers and philanthropic organizations," spokesman Ryan O'Doherty said. "All of that is going to benefit the city."

Rawlings-Blake's guests in the city's skybox for Ravens games last season typically included a small circle of city employees, business leaders, campaign donors, and family members, according to documents obtained by The Baltimore Sun through a public records request.

At a game shortly before Baltimore's September primary election, guests included a high-profile donor, her campaign fundraiser and a union leader who later publicly endorsed her. The mayor also used the tickets to benefit charities, lower-level staffers and members of the faith community.

The skybox is provided at no cost to Rawlings-Blake — as it was to previous mayors — under the lease agreement for what is now called M&T Bank Stadium. O'Doherty said the city is billed for food "at a deep discount" and does not supply alcohol.

The Sun requested the documents after the mayor's skybox was thrust into the spotlight when Rawlings-Blake rescinded an offer of tickets for the Jan. 11 playoff game to Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young. The mayor withdrew the invitation after Young publicly criticized her efforts to plan another Grand Prix IndyCar race.

Staffers told Young that his presence would have made Rawlings-Blake's supporters and family uncomfortable, sources said at the time.

Christopher B. Summers, president of the Maryland Public Policy Institute, said Rawlings-Blake appears to use the tickets in a "petty" manner, rewarding supporters and punishing opponents.

"It goes back to a junior high school clique," he said.

Common Cause said that after each Ravens game, the mayor's office should post on the city's website a list of the people who were invited to the skybox.

The stadium was built with $200 million in public financing, and the offices of the mayor and governor were given premium skyboxes as part of the lease agreement for the stadium in 1995.

O'Doherty said skybox tickets were not intended as a reward for campaign donations or political support, adding that the mayor invites people of all socioeconomic backgrounds.

He provided photos of Rawlings-Blake giving tickets in 2010 to a Wyman Park Restaurant cook whom she deemed a hard worker. Documents show the mayor also raffled off 10 box seats to support the YouthWorks Summer Jobs Program, and has handed out tickets to reward city workers for outstanding achievements.

According to the documents, chief of staff Peter O'Malley said in an email to a public works supervisor that the mayor wanted to give employee Doreen Moore tickets "in recognition of her consistently good work."

"We could even have [the tickets] delivered to her at the job site," O'Malley wrote to Moore's supervisor.

Glenn Middleton, president of the AFSCME, the union that represents the city's blue-collar workers, said several water treatment employees were delighted to receive invitations.

"It's an honor," Middleton said. "They got to sit next to dignitaries. It was a highlight of a lifetime."

City officials offer the list of skybox attendees to anyone who asks, O'Doherty said. "This administration has never withheld any public information about attendees."

Rawlings-Blake extended skybox invitations to the owners of small city businesses such as Sofi's Crepes and Wockenfuss Chocolates, as well as high-powered lawyers and developers.

"WOW … that sounds amazing … THANK YOU and YES!!!" Ann Costlow, the owner of Sofi's Crepes, said in an email to a mayoral aide.

Several faith community leaders were invited to one preseason game, as was the owner of Pixelligent, a technology company that had recently relocated its headquarters to the city.

Internal emails show that the guest list was divided into categories such as "friend," "family," "senior staff," "agency," "business" and "legislator."

In one case, a staffer asked for a ticket to placate someone who was displeased.

Andrew Smullian, who works in governmental affairs for the city, sought tickets for Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector "on behalf of someone who has done some work for her."

"Please let whomever makes the decision know that I think we should honor this request as there are some other issues that she is unhappy about," Smullian wrote. "I can elaborate further."

Reached by phone, Spector said she could not remember what her issues were with the administration. She said her relatives used the tickets.

"If I was mad at the mayor, I'm not mad at the mayor anymore," she said.

Spector defended Rawlings-Blake's approach, arguing that the mayor is using the tickets in "the exact same way" as previous mayors.

"It's easy to be critical," Spector said. "The mayor has a right to use her judgment. The mayor is very generous to the community.

"She's working hard and she should have the opportunity to make these kinds of decisions. Why pick on her? Even a rich man likes a present."





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