ACLU sues Salisbury over voting rights City law gives say to nonresidents

June 02, 1993|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Staff Writer

The ACLU yesterday asked a federal court to rule that a charter provision allowing nonresidents to vote in Salisbury municipal elections is unconstitutional because it discriminates against black voters.

This is the second time this year that the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland has filed a voting rights suit against an Eastern Shore community.

Yesterday's suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, came a week after members of the Salisbury City Council failed to act on a proposed measure to revoke a voting law that allows outsiders with at least $500 in property to vote for the mayor and council members.

The suit was filed on behalf of six Salisbury residents and Warren White, president of the Wicomico County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The suit seeks no monetary damages except legal fees.

According to the ACLU, 327 -- or 4.1 percent -- of Salisbury's 7,954 registered voters do not live there. Eight of the outsiders are black.

The suit says the law is unconstitutional because it dilutes the voting strength of Salisbury's blacks, who represent 27.4 percent of the population.

Deborah A. Jeon, a lawyer with the ACLU, said Salisbury elections often are close enough for nonresident voters to make a difference.

In April, the ACLU reached an out-of-court settlement in a similar federal suit filed in February against Princess Anne, when that town agreed to change its law allowing nonresidents to vote in municipal elections.

The issue emerged in Salisbury 10 months ago when a plaintiff in the suit -- a former candidate for city council who is white -- complained to the city that the law was unconstitutional.

On May 24, Councilman Timothy A. Sakemiller made a motion to repeal the law, but the other three council members would not second the motion. Council President Robin R. Cockey, under council rules, is prevented from seconding motions.

Mary B. Pinkett, the only black council member, would not comment on why she did not second the motion. But she insisted that the law does not discriminate against blacks.

Thomas C. Valkenet, a Baltimore lawyer who filed the suit on behalf of the ACLU, said Salisbury council members have resisted repealing the law although their city solicitor has advised them that they probably would lose in federal court.

"Why they're being so obdurate in their behavior, we don't know," Mr. Valkenet said.

Councilman Robert M. Caldwell said Salisbury has not dragged its feet on the issue. He said he was waiting for outside counsel, to be hired by the charter review committee, to determine the legality of the voting law.

Mr. Caldwell said council members are taking a "reasonable" approach to resolving the matter.

"This law has been around since 1958 or 1959," he said. "We've got people who have been given a right. Before we snatch it away, we want to make sure they have the proper representation."

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