The Baltimore City Council voted unanimously yesterday to require itself to hold public hearings before filling vacant council seats, a move that supporters said could help wrest the selection process from political organizations and open it to public scrutiny.
The rules change, an adaptation of a proposal made by Council President Mary Pat Clarke, was hailed by some black council members, who said they were concerned that council members from the 6th District might ignore the aspirations of South Baltimore's growing black population should the delegation have a chance to fill a vacant seat.
A vacancy in the 6th District is possible as early as next month because Councilman Timothy D. Murphy, D-6th, is considered a strong candidate for a judgeship in the District Court of Maryland for Baltimore.
Until now, when death or political advancement left a seat vacant in the Baltimore City Council, the two other members from the district would decide among themselves on a successor.
The 16 other council members generally would approve the choice without dissent, following the long-standing tradition of councilmanic courtesy.
Critics have said the arrangement perpetuates the power of political organizations already represented in the council by allowing them to place their cronies in vacant seats without having to go through an election.
"Political clubs should not decide who is to represent 130,000 people in a district," said Councilman Carl Stokes, D-2nd. "The public said 'Let us in.' "
All three of the council's 6th District representatives first gained their seats through appointment -- rather than through election -- after being nominated by members of the influential Stonewall Democratic Club.
Mr. Murphy filled a seat vacated in 1982 by the death of Joseph W. Murphy. Timothy Murphy, who is not related to Joseph Murphy, was the choice of then-6th District council members George W. Della Jr. and William J. Myers, who were members of the Stonewall Democratic Club.
Should Mr. Murphy be appointed to the court, members of the Stonewall club are said to be ready to press for the nomination of Timothy J. O'Malley, a Stonewall member whose father is Joseph W. "Doc" O'Malley, a former member of the House of Delegates who died in January.
The 6th District, which stretches from Loudon Park Cemetery in the city's southwest corner east across the South Baltimore peninsula and south to the banks of the Curtis Bay, is believed to be at least 40 percent black. Nonetheless, it has never had a black representative on the council.
Black members of the council have said the appointment of a white to a vacant seat in the 6th District would again give a white appointee the advantage of incumbency in facing black challengers in next year's councilmanic election.
The council also approved and sent to the mayor a bill that would place a 4 percent limit on the amount tax assessments could grow for most owner-occupied homes in Baltimore. Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge dissented, saying he favored a higher cap accompanied by a cut in the tax rate. The mayor sponsored the bill and is expected to sign it into law.
The so-called "assessment cap" is designed to give a measure of relief to Baltimore homeowners, who pay far more in property taxes than do the owners of similar homes in Maryland's 23 other subdivisions.