Redistricting with old data worries council members

November 21, 1990|By Michael A. Fletcher | Michael A. Fletcher,Evening Sun Staff

News that Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke will draft his 1991 redistricting plan using 10-year-old census data is causing anxiety among City Council members, some of whom are worried that the mayor may draw them out of their current councilmanic districts.

The anxiety was apparent yesterday when council members learned that final 1990 census figures will not be available until at least April, two months after Schmoke must submit his redistricting plan to the council. The news came at the first of several planned hearings on the 1991 revision of the boundaries for the city's six councilmanic districts.

"Projections are the best game in town," said Ray Bird, a city planning official whose office will be shuttling census information to the mayor. Bird was among a group of city and state planning and election officials who joined federal census officials at the hearing.

Several council members complained that the 1990 census projections may prove to be inaccurate once the final census numbers are reported to the city. And that could throw the entire redistricting process into disarray in the middle of an election year.

The final 1990 census numbers won't be available to the city until at least April, and possibly later if any challenges are filed, census officials said.

Under the city charter, Schmoke must submit a redistricting plan to the council by Feb. 1 of the first municipal election year after the census. The council then has 60 days to accept the plan, amend it or devise one of its own.

The mayor and entire City Council are up for election to four-year terms next November. They face primary elections in September.

This year, the redistricting process is enmeshed in racial politics. Underlying the friction is the fact that 12 of the 19 council members are white, although the city's population is estimated to be at least 60 percent black. Several white council members fear that Schmoke will draw new boundaries that ensure that more blacks are elected to the council.

Council members expressed dismay that the final 1990 census count won't be released before they have to pass or amend the mayor's redistricting plan. Some said that could lead to a political mess.

"I think we really run the risk of having two elections in this city," said Councilwoman Vera P. Hall, D-5th.

"If the actual numbers prove to be far different from the projections," Hall said, council members might wind up challenging Schmoke's redistricting plan in court in the midst of an election campaign.

In addition to concern about the accuracy of the numbers Schmoke is using for his redistricting plan, Council members Anthony J. Ambridge, D-2nd, and Wilbur E. "Bill" Cunningham, D-3rd, -- both of whom are concerned about being removed from their present districts by the mayor -- renewed their charge that the administration is not being open about the redistricting process.

Fueling their anger yesterday was the refusal of City Solicitor Neal M. Janey to testify at the hearing. Janey sent a letter to the council saying that he would be unable to provide them with legal opinions until the mayor submits the plan to them in February.

Cunningham said Janey's posture pits the council squarely against the mayor in the redistricting process. "What's important to know is that the administration and city solicitor are setting up an adversarial relationship," he said.

Janey said that he was simply adhering to past practice whereby the solicitor has not offered any formal opinions to the council before the mayor submitted a redistricting plan. Moreover, Janey has written a memo to council Vice President Jacqueline F. McLean, D-2nd, offering to give council members a private briefing "about the general aspects of redistricting."

But some council members found that unsatisfactory. "The city solicitor is counsel to the mayor and council and we asked him questions," Cunningham said. "As far as I'm concerned, they should have been answered."

For his part, Schmoke has said only that he would like to devise a fair plan.

In addition, the mayor has refused to guarantee that incumbents will remain in their current districts, explaining tartly that the point of redistricting "is not to protect incumbents."

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