Black leaders seek to open up county council

May 13, 1991|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Baltimore County Bureau of The Sun

As a first step toward electing Baltimore County's first black council member, a group of black leaders will launch a petition drive to put a question on the November 1992 ballot asking voters to add at least four members to the seven-member council.

Members of the Coalition of African American Organizations will begin collecting the required 10,000 signatures of registered voters in June by going door-to-door and approaching voters in malls, libraries and shopping areas, said Harold Gordon, a coalition spokesman.

Mr. Gordon said the exact total of council members sought in the petition has yet to be decided, but is likely to be "at least" 11.

The current system of seven council members means that each represents roughly 99,000 people in districts that are too large and diverse, he said.

"I think you have council members trying to cover too much area and represent too many people," said Mr. Gordon, 45, an administrator for the state Board of Social Work Examiners.

But Council Chairman Douglas B. Riley, R-4th, said he prefers a seven-member council because it is large enough to handle each district's needs and small enough for individual members to have clout with department heads whose budgets they approve.

"My feeling is that it [an increase in size] would dilute our effectiveness in getting department heads to respond to constituent needs," Mr. Riley said.

The petition drive comes as the county's black population has increased dramatically and as the council begins redrawing districts to conform to 1990 census population figures.

Mr. Riley said the council will meet Thursday to go over population data supplied by county planners as a first step toward mapping new council district boundaries.

The petition drive would have no direct effect on redistricting this year, the council chairman said. But he said that if the petition succeeds and a charter amendment is passed in 1992, the boundary lines would be redrawn for the 1994 election.

The county's 1990 population of 692,134 means each district ideally should have 98,876 residents, according to a county memo given to council members.

No black has been a member of the County Council since charter government took effect in 1957.

The county's black population grew by more than 31,000, or 58 percent, from 1980 to 1990.

Much of the growth was in the 2nd District, which is 40 percent black. But even that is insufficient to elect a black from that district for the seven-member council, Mr. Gordon said.

Mr. Gordon, who was defeated in last year's Democratic primary for the 2nd Councilmanic District, said it is almost impossible for a black candidate to get elected in the racially diverse Liberty Road corridor where he lives, because the district includes many predominantly white communities.

"Under the present system, I am not a viable candidate," Mr. Gordon said.

He acknowledged that he would likely run for one of the new district seats if the council were expanded, but he said the issue goes beyond representation for blacks.

"You've got a lot of groups out there not being represented," he said. "The Liberty Road corridor is not being represented."

But Councilman Melvin Mintz, D-2nd, said he's represented the corridor as much as any other part of his district. Otherwise, he said, he wouldn't have been re-elected last fall in an election that saw five other incumbents defeated. He garnered 67 percent of the vote in the primary and won by a 3-1 margin in the general election.

"I feel really comfortable about the level of my representation, to all groups in my district," he said.

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