Streamlining City Hall

Glenn McNatt

May 21, 1991|By Glenn McNatt

WHY DOES Baltimore city, which has population of 736,000, need 18 City Council members when Baltimore County, with a population roughly the same, manages to get the job done with pTC only seven? Simply put, the city doesn't really need all those council people. However embarrassing it may be to incumbents, a belated recognition of this reality is beginning to take hold atCity Hall, where in the last week three redistricting plans have emerged from the council.

One plan, sponsored by Councilman Wilbur E. "Bill" Cunningham, D-3rd, would create 11 single-member councilmanic districts whose members would elect the council president from among themselves to fulfil the office' charter-mandated responsibilities.

A second plan, sponsored by Councilman Carl Stokes, D-2nd, would create nine, two-member districts but leave the council president's office unchanged. The third proposal, offered by Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge, D-2nd, would retain the current six districts but provide for two members per district, rather than the current three.

None of these changes would affect the voting in the 1991 elections, which will occur under the redistricting plan approved last month by the council and Mayor Schmoke in response to the legal requirement for redrawing district boundaries after every 10-year census.

That plan, engineered largely by Stokes, increased the number of black majority districts in the city from three to five, but left the total number of districts and council members unchanged.

Yet the current six-district setup, with three members per district, is an anachronism that can hardly be justified in an era of tight budgets and a shrinking municipal work force. In principle, there is no reason why Baltimore couldn't conduct its business well with a smaller council, as do neighboring jurisdictions.

Downsizing the council would require amending the City Charter, a change that would have to be approved by voters in a special referendum in the next election. But the fact that there are three plans in the hopper makes passage of any one of them less likely if all three appear on the ballot in November.

And there's the rub. Because charter questions usually don't receive the same scrutiny from voters as candidates, the suspicion arises that one or more of these proposals may in fact be a spoiler aimed more at sabotaging the chances of the others than at increasing the efficiency of the council.

Figuring out which is which, however, isn't easy. Cunningham's proposal, for example, makes good sense in terms of streamlining city government. It would save about $1 million a year in salaries and operating costs and bring the size of the council more in line with other legislative bodies in the region.

But because it abolishes the council president's post, the plan is guaranteed to stir opposition from City Council President Mary Pat Clarke's supporters. They surely will recall that this is not the first time Cunningham has tried to clip Clarke's wings.

On her first day in office back in 1988, Clarke had to endure the public humiliation of standing by helplessly while a coalition led by Cunningham's 3rd District delegation stripped her appointive prerogatives.

Last month, Clarke got revenge by casting the decisive vote for Stokes' redistricting plan, which cut into Cunningham's 3rd District political base. Given this history, his 11-district plan could be just the latest move in an ongoing game of political tit-for-tat.

"Stokes II" might also be the spoiler. Since it retains the 18-member council -- but with only two members per district -- plus an elected council president, this plan can hardly be an efficiency measure. But depending on how the new lines are drawn, it could further cripple Cunningham. More tit-for-tat.

Ambridge's idea is to keep the elected council president and the six current districts, but reduce them to two members instead of three. That makes sense in terms of efficiency and also politics. Ambridge is a Clarke ally -- but it's hard to see how he could garner enough support to get his measure on the ballot.

Everyone, of course, is going to be looking at how the just-completed redistricting plan affects the racial balance of the council where whites now outnumber blacks 11 to seven, even though blacks make up a majority of city residents. Yet it would be a pity if the preoccupation with racial politics and political grudge matches prevents the council from seriously trying to streamline City Hall -- a reform that by any measure is long overdue.

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