FIXING WHAT'S not broken often breaks things that don't need fixing.
After observing the public protests and listening to all of the speakers at the open public hearing on the City Council redistricting bill last week, I came away convinced that the plan would create more divisiveness in a city that desperately needs togetherness -- and would rapidly erode our already shrinking tax base.
As a resident of Baltimore for over 40 years, I have been an active participant in the political and community life of the 3rd Councilmanic District and 43rd Legislative District. For over 30 of those years, I was closely involved with the city school system as a teacher and director of the Public School Teachers Association. In all of those activities, in neighborhood associations such as Harbel, the Greater Northeast Community Council, Necco, the York Road Improvement Group and various political organizations, I worked closely for community cooperation.
Over the last 20 years, these activities involved an increasing number of blacks, and we have developed what could only be called amicable, well-established, representative black and white participation. Noticeably absent in the district through these transitional years have been the kind of racial confrontations seen in other parts of the city.
Apparently aware of this growing togetherness, Mayor Schmoke weeks ago submitted to the City Council a redistricting plan based on preliminary census numbers that slightly altered the boundaries of the districts. In most cases, that plan preserved the integrity of the close neighborhood alliances, and the mayor said that when the final census figures came in, he was willing to make adjustments to his plan.
Enter the City Council and Councilman Carl Stokes, D-2nd, with a plan worked out in secret and presented to the mayor at noon of the day it was to receive a preliminary vote. It was not the council's finest hour. As I watched the body on cable television last Monday, I was overwhelmed by the sentiment of some of the black members: "We will get even!" The council members who devised the plan said that it is "unfair" that only seven of 18 council members in a city that is nearly 60 percent minority are black. That may be true. But what is the fairness of a redistricting plan under which five of six districts have a majority of black citizens? Potentially, 15 of the 18 council members could be black.
Even more disturbing is how this amended plan manages to extend the already gerrymandered 1st District (Little Italy, Highlandtown) all the way up to Harford/Belair Road, miles away, and down across the harbor to include relatively stable Federal Hill and Locust Point -- all to create a district that would be 79 percent white. To make up for the loss in numbers in the 3rd district (Hamilton), the planners would move several precincts in the 8th and 9th Ward of the 1st and 2nd Districts into the bottom end of the 3rd District.
I believe the adoption of this plan will immediately begin to deteriorate fairly well-established, amicable race relations in the present 3rd Councilmanic District, especially in the upper York Road and the upper Bel Air Road area around the Frankford and Hazelwood elementary schools, where racial polarization has been greatly reduced over the years through the hard work of community organizations. This new political division can only exacerbate white fears, real or perceived, and as pointed out at last week's hearings, encourage more of the homeowners (taxpayers) to simply move to surrounding counties. These people already pay higher insurance rates and twice the property taxes of their neighbors in the county, and they get poorer municipal services.
We are all aware of the fact that the lines must be changed and some districts have to be "fixed" to bring about better balance and a fair opportunity for minorities to be elected. However, the proposed new map represents a much-too-radical departure at a time when Baltimore needs slow and moderate changes. (It also, by the way, seems to be designed to perpetuate the political careers of the 1st District delegation, which historically has worked to avoid racial integration.)
The "fixes" in the proposed redistricting plan appear to be directed at what is not broken. As for fairness, the plan seems to be more "get even" than "get equal."
Jack Nolan writes from Baltimore.