Question L talk has been low-key Lack of debate over 1-member districts seen as a plus.

November 04, 1991|By Michael A. Fletcher | Michael A. Fletcher,Evening Sun Staff

Tomorrow, city voters will cast ballots on Question L, a referendum that could bring the most radical change in almost 70 years to Baltimore's City Council.

But despite the stakes, the debate over Question L, which would divide Baltimore into 18 single-member council districts, has been a quiet one. And advocates of the issue say that's a good thing.

"Traditionally, ballot questions have passed if there is not much publicity surrounding them," said David R. Blumberg, chairman of the city Republican Party, which led the petition drive that put the issue on the ballot.

The opponents, led by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Council President Mary Pat Clarke, are hoping to defeat the ballot question with a low-key campaign. They have been speaking against the measure at candidates' forums and plan to have poll workers hand out literature urging voters to vote against Question L.

Blumberg, meanwhile, said his group over the weekend began spending about $5,000 for radio and newspaper advertising urging voters to support the measure.

"Single-member districts would bring much more accountability," Blumberg said, adding that his advertising will make that point. "People will know who their council people are. And someone who lives near you will be able to represent you."

That is not always the case now in Baltimore, which Blumberg says is the only major city in America that maintains multimember council districts. Since 1923, Baltimore's council members have been elected from multimember districts. Currently, three members are elected from each of six council districts, while the council president is elected citywide.

"Right now, you have a district that stretches from Ten Hills to Homeland," Blumberg said. "Another stretches from Gardenville to Locust Point. The two councilmen who live closest to me aren't even in my district."

Despite those arguments, a similar ballot question was soundly defeated in 1984.

But this year, Question L is backed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which believes the measure would increase black representation on the council. The NAACP support helps defuse arguments that Question L is some kind of GOP plot to increase the chances of electing a Republican to the council, supporters say.

Also, supporters point out that other "good government" groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the League of Women Voters, have a national record of backing single-member council districts.

"This time the Republicans are on the right side of a good-government issue," Blumberg said.

Others are not buying that. "This effort is precipitous," said Daniel P. Henson 3rd, a political confidant of Schmoke. "I don't trust the sponsors. Why would I trust the Republican Party diddling around with something in Baltimore City? Why can't they wait until the charter study commission looks at it? Just when the system is about to work for African-Americans, we want to change it? No."

Supporters say, however, that only those in power have a problem with Question L.

"Most elected officials are absolutely opposed to it and I understand why; it changes the turf," said Arthur Murphy, president of the Baltimore NAACP. "Anybody elected under the current system is very comfortable with it, and they take this Question L thing very personally."

Murphy said single-member districts would give neighborhoods a greater voice in determining just who is on the council. That would mean more blacks and even more low-income people on the council, he said.

Also, he said, single-member districts would most likely reduce campaign costs, because candidates would have a much smaller area in which to campaign.

Opponents argue that the measure is premature. They also say it would force the council to once again go through the painful process of drawing council district lines -- an exercise that proved to be racially divisive last spring.

"We were forced to redistrict this spring and live up to requirements of the law to do so in a fair way," Clarke said. "In the process, some neighborhoods got divided and were extremely upset and we were upset. Now, here comes a proposal that would force the City Council to cut the city up into 18 districts. We would be dividing neighborhoods left and right. I do not want that task handed to us."

Schmoke is opposing the ballot question as well, saying that any move to change the City Council should come from a commission currently reviewing the City Charter.

"The mayor does not support Question L," said Clinton R. Coleman, Schmoke's press secretary. "He prefers that the issue be left to the Charter Review Commission process. Their recommendation, depending on what they come up with, ultimately will go to the voters. And it will get to the voters after the panel makes some well-thought-out recommendations."

As a result, even if voters approve Question L, the referendum's result could become moot even before going into effect for the next council election in 1995. If the Charter Commission suggests a change in the council's configuration, that recommendation would go before voters either in 1992 or 1994, according to Harry A. Cole, head of the charter review commission.

"I'm well aware of that," Blumberg said. "But if our initiative passes it certainly pressures the commission to come out with a single-member district plan for the city."

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