Ever since 1923, Baltimore has had an unusual multi-member district system for choosing its City Council. Voters in each of the six districts elect three council members; the City Council president is chosen by a city-wide vote.
Over the years, attempts to change this arrangement have failed. The city is now the only subdivision in the state that has such a multi-member arrangement. It is the only big-city government in the country without single-member districts.
Referendum Question L in the Nov. 5 election asks city voters to create 18 single-member districts in place of the current six districts with three council members each.
The Sun has opposed similar proposals in the past. But as we have reviewed the composition and performance of the City Council, we have come to the conclusion that many of its problems are due to the way it is set up. Those can be corrected only if the system itself is changed.
We particularly think that single-member districts would assure proportionate representation for blacks and might even facilitate the first election of Republicans to the council in half a century.
If there is a flaw with Question L, which was put on the ballot after a successful petition drive spearheaded by the Republican Party, it is the proposed size of the council.
This has been the topic of debate among current council members (most of whom oppose Question L). Councilman Wilbur E. "Bill" Cunningham, for example, would create 11 single-member districts. Six or nine two-member districts have also been mentioned as possibilities.
These are questions that a Charter Revision Commission is currently trying to answer. The commission will finish its work in January and could recommend a switch to single-member districts. But there is no guarantee this will occur. Question L is the voters' only certain vehicle for engineering this much-needed change.
The Sun believes that Question L provides a welcome opportunity to start reforming Baltimore's City Council system and to make it more responsive to the city's varied constituencies. Each council member would represent 41,000 Baltimoreans, not the 122,000 people under the current set-up. The new districts would be smaller, more compact and give citizens far greater access and influence with their council representative.
While parochialism in single-member districts is a concern, it is a danger that can be avoided. After all, politics by definition consists of coalition-building and the development of broad agendas.
We urge voters to pull the "yes" lever on Question L a week from Tuesday. It offers a better method for selecting council members than the multi-member scheme now on the books. And if the Charter Revision Commission comes up with a superior plan next year, Baltimoreans will have ample opportunity to adopt that approach long before Question L goes into effect in 1995.