For the second time in seven years, Baltimore voters have rejected a proposal to elect their City Council members from single-member districts.
Question L, the City Charter amendment that would have created 18 single-member districts, lost by 8,196 votes in yesterday's General Election. Unofficial figures show that 34,175 votes were cast against Question L and 25,979 votes were cast for it.
The charter currently requires that three council members be elected from six councilmanic districts, a provision that has been in effect since 1967. Voters turned back a similar referendum in 1984 by a vote of 85,472 to 65,474.
There were 12 referendum questions on the ballot and Question L was the only one that was defeated. Voters approved nine bond issues, which would raise up to $35 million for various capital improvement projects, a $20 million bond issue for the city's self-insurance fund, and a provision allowing the city to issue mini-bonds in denominations as small as $500.
Gene M. Raynor, state administrator of election laws, and former city election chief, attributed the defeat of Question L to campaigning by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.
The mayor opposed the measure, saying it is premature. Schmoke says any major changes in the City Charter should first be studied by the Charter Revision Commission,which is currently meeting. The commission is expected to issue a report sometime next year.
Election Day was punctuated by low voter turnout and relatively little electioneering at polling places by any campaign workers other than Schmoke's. Schmoke campaign workers -- about 1,000 of them -- were visible at the polls in each council district.
Schmoke's volunteers handed out thousands of copies of "Mayor Schmoke's Official Ballot" which urged voters to reject Question L.
"The voters weren't getting anything but the mayor's ballot before they went into the voting booth and that's what I think brought down Question L," Raynor said.
"We never felt that we had to overwhelm people with the information," said Daniel P. Henson 3rd, a top campaign strategist for Schmoke. "We always felt that you shouldn't be precipitous on an issue that would change how people relate to their elected officials. Right now, the charter review commission is meeting and what they are doing is rethinking the entire question of government in the 1990s. It is an issue that required study before action."
Question L got off the ground when the city Republican Party -- which was responsible for the 1984 referendum -- launched a petition drive to place the single-member referendum on the ballot shortly after the council adopted a new redistricting plan last March.
Under the banner of an organization called Baltimoreans For Fair Representation, the GOP gained the support of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the League of Women Voters and the Civil Liberties Union.
GOP leaders and a cadre of volunteers managed to get the signatures of more than 13,000 registered city voters -- 3,000 more than required by the charter.
David R. Blumberg, chair of the city Republican Party, said he was obviously disappointed at the loss of Question L.
"But we now have an alliance with groups who didn't support us before and were uncomfortable with us," said Blumberg, looking on the bright side.
While noting that "the mayor and the president of the city council were able to defeat us," Blumberg predicted that the city's charter review commission -- now studying councilmanic representation -- will propose single member districts next year. It was a prediction shared by Art Murphy, president of the Baltimore Chapter of the NAACP.
Murphy said his organization didn't have the money for a stronger campaign behind Question L.
"It was a statement of principle for us, pure and simple. I didn't invest a dime," he said, adding that he made several personal appearances and the NAACP passed a resolution favoring Question L.
"We didn't run a campaign," Murphy said of the NAACP's half-hearted effort. "The voters sent a message that the marketing plan of the mayor was superior to the marketing plan of the Republican Party."
City Council President Mary Pat Clarke said that even though voters turned down Question L, they still sent out a clear message that must be heeded by elected officials.
"As elected officials, we need to live up to the spirit of Question L because I think voters clearly indicated they want government to be closer to them and be more responsive," said Clarke, who opposed Question L. Robert and Emma Jackson, a retired couple from Bayonne Street in Hamilton said they voted for Question L because they feel shunned and disillusioned by the city government.
By voting for Question L, the Jacksons said, they hoped their needs would get more attention.
Opponents of Question L contended it would lead to council members becoming too interested in their own districts rather than the city at large.
The GOP turned down a request from the city council to withdraw its referendum and await the outcome of the mayor's charter review commission.
The city Board of Election Supervisors then turned down the petitions on the grounds the party did not file the proper financial disclosure statements. But the City Solicitor's Office overruled the election board contending the board did not give the party the proper information about financial disclosure requirements.