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An argument for Dixon’s pension deal

Some 1,000 protesters signed up to decry Mayor Sheila Dixon’s taxpayer-funded golden parachute this week. Some of them shouted their disapproval in front of City Hall.

They were there for their own tea party.

How could a public official, convicted of stealing from the poor, walk off into private life with an annual pension of $83,000?

Was this a deliberate taunting of the recession-wracked public? Could government find anything more galling to put before the people?

The ferocity of the protest stems not only from the pension payout but from a kind of global unhappiness with Washington, Wall Street, bankers and others who seem to profit from failure if not dishonesty.

Any political figure or political observer who doesn’t see something deeper here isn’t listening carefully enough.

Baltimore’s mayor-in-waiting, Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, called the public anger “understandable.”

What Dixon brought

Understandable, of course. Understanding? Not so much.

But understanding is what we need.

We may be unhappy about a lot of things in public life today, but we ought to avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater, cutting off our noses and all those other self-defeating clichés humans are capable of.

In times like these, lessons in process and democracy may be more infuriating, but here goes.

We got something important for the $83,000: We got new leadership. We got freedom from the idea that this year’s stolen $50 gift cards will be next year’s million-dollar payoff.

Public corruption cases have a rhythm as well as a purpose. Those who are unworthy of the public trust must go. The quality of mercy should be sustained where possible. But there’s a limit. Prosecutors enforce our right to honest service. If it looks like fast and loose is taking over from measured and above board, we must hope that disturbing change of pace doesn’t go unnoticed.

There may be an investigation. If wrongdoing is found, an indictment may follow. Then a trial and a verdict. Followed by a sentence. A guilty finding might be the end of it. But, if the prosecutor is so inclined and the public interest compels it, a plea bargain may be in order.

Actually, the end game seems to have worked pretty well in the mayor’s case. Although insisting on her innocence, Dixon and her lawyers concluded they had little hope of winning in a second trial should one be granted.

What they must have focused on soon after a jury found her guilty was the pension. Could it be preserved? What bargaining power did the mayor have? Was there a public interest?

Guaranteed humiliation

After the Christmas holidays, Dixon’s lawyers approached the prosecutor. What emerged from those talks was no smiley-face conclusion.

She gets her $83,000 pension. But she would pay $45,000 to a local charity (she’d been convicted of stealing from the poor). She would be required to auction off gifts given to her by a developer. She would be required to perform 500 hours of public service and she would be banned from working in state or local government for four years.

This was not nothing. Notwithstanding her protestations, she would suffer the humiliation. She would be removed from the history-making role — first woman to serve as mayor — that surely gave her standing in the community.

She might have stayed to appeal. A battler, she might have decided to fight on and on. That prospect was not a good one for the city. In a sense, the prosecutor and the judge decided to buy out her contract in exchange for her departure.

Council President Rawlings-Blake has handled herself with confidence in the first days of the transition. She has seemed to be in command of many issues she will face as of Feb. 4, Dixon’s last day in office.

The taxpayer is understandably unhappy. For many, the $83,000 seems like a king’s ransom. Ransom, it may have been. But the life of the city was worth it.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His email address is

One comment

  1. “Dixon and her lawyers concluded they had little hope of winning in a second trial should one be granted.” So, let me get this straight, because her chances on a second trial (which was unlikely to happen anyway given the record of the COSA in reversing convictions), were poor, and no doubt she was going to be convicted of perjury, the citizens of Baltimore should be happy that she will be paid $83k (and more over the years as salary increases are given to city workers), for the rest of her life???? The protesters should not be chanting in front of City Hall, they should be protesting in front of the State Prosecutor’s office for taking such a deal especially when it was the prosecutor who held all the cards. Dixon’s lawyers did a great job even though they lost the trial.