The indomitable city GOP chairman, David Blumberg, believes that the people of Baltimore simply have lost touch with the City Council. "Single-member districts," he says, "would make council members more accountable to the people they are supposed to represent."
That, in a nutshell, is the argument for approving Question L, the charter amendment proposal which will appear on November's ballot aimed at replacing Baltimore's present system of six three-member City Council districts with 18 single-member districts. City Republicans have teamed up with the local NAACP as principal backers of the proposal.
Debate over Question L is just beginning in earnest. Mayor Schmoke, who would prefer to consider any redistricting plan as part of a comprehensive charter review scheduled for later this year, opposes the measure on principle but probably won't fight it too strenuously. City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, who fears it could fragment the council into an unwieldy collection of parochial fiefdoms, no doubt will mobilize her legion to defeat it.
Many community leaders and ordinary citizens, however, view the idea favorably. In 1984, when a similar measure was on the ballot, 44 percent of voters approved it. Before redistricting this year, there was strong sentiment in the black community for a system that promised representation more reflective of the population of the city, and among challengers for one that weakened the power of political machines. Single-member districts might accelerate both trends, as well as significantly reduce the cost of running a successful campaign, which can run as high as $100,000 in some districts.
But while single-member districts generally represent an improvement over the current system, we must ask why Baltimore needs 18 council members when neighboring subdivisions with similar populations manage with fewer than half that number. In an era of declining population and budgets it would seem the goal ought to be finding ways to shrink the size of government, not just shuffle the status quo. Is there any reason the city couldn't get along just as well with nine, 10 or 12 single-member districts? Cutting the council by half, or even by a third, for example, would save the city several million dollars each term.
Of course, these are precisely the kind of questions Mayor Schmoke's charter review commission was supposed to answer, which is why we sympathize with his desire to consider the matter in a calm, comprehensive manner free from the pressures of an election campaign. However, as a practical matter, since voters are going to have to make up their minds one way or another come Nov. 5, the immediate issue is whether the potential benefits likely to be gained from 18 single-member districts outweigh the admitted drawbacks of the present system. In our view, they clearly do. That is why we recommend a vote FOR Question L.