Merging City and County Districts

November 20, 1991

All the political posturing, parochial pettiness, racial and rural gerrymandering and anti-city rhetoric surrounding the drawing of Baltimore County's new General Assembly districts will have to be put aside now that the attorney general's office has interpeted federal law for county lawmakers: There must be a full-fledged minority legislative district carved out of the Liberty Road corridor that crosses the city-county line.

This pronouncement changes the entire complexion of redrawing state legislative districts in the Baltimore region. It virtually mandates shared districts between the city and its neighbors. If legislators or the governor refuse to do it, the courts surely will. It's required by the federal Voting Rights Act.

This could be a landmark step toward regional cooperation. Until now, county executives and the mayor have done little except express empty platitudes about regionalism. Concrete achievements have been lacking. But cooperation on real-life situations would be forced upon city and county lawmakers once they start sharing legislative districts -- and sharing the common concerns of Baltimore City and Baltimore County.

The Governor's Advisory Committee on Redistricting, having heeded the attorney general's warning, is asking city and county legislators to work together on drawing new maps that accommodate a shared minority district in the Liberty Road corridor, with 80 percent of the population in the county and 20 percent in the city.

The committee also is intent on retaining 15 districts in the two jurisdictions -- eight in the city and seven in the county. This is a plus for the city. But it will force one of Baltimore County's seven senators to run in the minority district or run against a fellow incumbent -- unless legislators work out cooperative arrangements for additional shared districts with the city and Harford and Carroll counties.

Every other region of the state has adapted to shared legislative districts. There is no reason city and county politicians cannot adjust as well. Communities straddling the artificial boundary line are nearly identical; the concerns of constituents are remarkably similar. Yet politicians, for their own selfish reasons, have fanned the flames of city-county separation.

State lawmakers ought to end their posturing and recognize the legal realities: shared city-county districts must be created. Such districts can be a force for greater city and county strength in the General Assembly. They can be a force for far-reaching regional cooperation to improve government services and cut duplicative and costly expenses. But first, legislators have to muster the courage to recognize the tremendous potential shared districts offer. And they have to look beyond their own self-interests.

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