Officials Should Give Free Tickets to Charities

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 December 12, 2012; Source: Baltimore Sun

Readers assuredly know that mayors (and probably other public sector chief executives) get complimentary tickets to concerts and sports events as part of city negotiations with the operators of these venues. Unfortunately, these perks of office get kept by the people in office, rather than being shared with their constituents (for instance, taking neighborhood kids to the ballgames).

In Washington, D.C., for example, some of the nastiest political battles of the past few years have been between the mayor and the City Council over who gets to have access to suites at the Verizon Center (where the Washington Wizards and the Washington Capitals play) and at Nationals Park (occupied by the city’s now-excellent baseball team). The beneficiaries of the tickets seem to be mayors (both former Mayor Adrian Fenty and current Mayor Vincent Gray), occasional members of the City Council, mayoral aides, and the mayors’ family members, who are reportedly motivated to see the likes of Hannah Montana, Lady Gaga, and Stephen Strasburg from luxury seats. Motivated to clean up this mess, Councilmember Jack Evans intervened with an amendment to the District’s 2013 law—not to establish some public or charitable purposes for the tickets, but to specify how many tickets go to each official.

In nearby Baltimore, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has been given plenty of free tickets for events held at the 1st Mariner Arena. According to the Baltimore Sun, the beneficiaries of the tickets controlled by Rawlings-Blake have been the mayor, her aides, and her family and friends, who have been able to attend otherwise sold-out concerts by performers such as Sade, Rihanna, and Jay-Z.

Baltimore’s ethics board has asked the mayor to come up with a list of “legitimate city purposes” for the tickets to serve as guidelines for their future distribution and use. The board had tried to figure out how tickets were used in the past, but found itself frustrated by a lack of records as to who received the tickets and what purpose they served. According to the board, the mayor’s office couldn’t even locate a copy of the contract between the city and 1st Mariner Arena that identified how many tickets the mayor’s office was entitled to receive. In asking the mayor for a list of legitimate purposes, the board apparently plans to use the list as guidelines not just for tickets to events at 1st Mariner Arena, but also to events at M&T Bank Stadium (where the Baltimore Ravens play) and Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

So what did the mayor’s office put on the list as a legitimate public purpose for the tickets? To provide “the Mayor and friends and family with the reasonable opportunity to attend the ticketed events in support of a given venue.” The other reasons on the list are, according to the Sun, “to serve as a thank-you to community leaders; as goodwill offerings for economic development; [and] to reward city officials and employees and their families for good work.” There is a lot of leeway in those purposes, which probably would explain how Mayor Rawlings-Blake justified giving two of the Jay-Z tickets to former D.C. Mayor Fenty.

Remember when Baltimore’s previous mayor, Sheila Dixon, was criticized for using gift cards meant for people in need for herself instead? Readers should know that, frequently, public corruption doesn’t occur in massive under-the-table bribes, but in little things like tickets and gift cards. They may not rise to the level of warranting legal action (though in Dixon’s case, they did), and often that’s because of the lack of rules. The end result is typically either the unnecessary and inappropriate enrichment of public officials who get the luxury suites and attendant freebies or the use of these gifts as political favors.

Here’s the guideline we would prefer that the cities enact in regard to their access to free seats at arenas, stadiums, and other public venues: Just turn the tickets over to the YMCA or the Boys and Girls Clubs and have them distribute them to kids in need—and make sure there’s appropriate recordkeeping and government oversight and monitoring.—Rick Cohen