As a new Baltimore City Council takes office with a black majority for the first time in history, council members are hailing the change as a giant step toward better representation for African-Americans in a predominantly black city.
But now, the question percolating in the background is whether this new council should signal the end of the African-American Coalition -- a group of black council members formed in 1988 to strengthen themselves in a largely white council.
For the most part, the issue has divided the 19 council members into two camps:
White members who believe the coalition should go but don't push the issue for fear of being labeled racist. Black members who believe it should stay because it allows them to act on social problems that are pervasive in the black community.
"I clearly don't think there is a need," said Anthony J. Ambridge, a white 2nd District councilman. "We don't need to further divide people."
Coalition member Sheila Dixon of the 4th District said the group's critics don't understand how blacks benefit from added attention.
"Who better than we can deal with the issues and concerns of our community?" Mrs. Dixon said.
Sixth District Councilman Melvin L. Stukes, who headed the coalition last year, said it will continue.
But it is unclear whether the coalition legally may meet and discuss council issues in private as it has in the past. If all 10 black members of the council join, then the meetings technically will be a quorum, which then have to be opened to all members.
The five council members who won re-election have indicated that they would return to the coalition. The five new black members have not been asked to join the group, but they were invited to a Sept. 23 orientation meeting.
Lawrence A. Bell III, the new council president who was elected a 4th District councilman in 1987, was the one black representative who was not part of the group. He said he did not see a need for it.
Since the coalition was formed, its achievements have included pushing for more minority representation in city contract work and pushing for tighter restrictions for adolescent curfews, according to the group's literature.
Also in 1991, coalition member Carl Stokes, who gave up his 2nd District seat to run for council president, drafted a sweeping councilmanic redistricting plan that gave blacks significantly more voting power. Coalition members say that plan paved the way for today's majority black council.
"The perception that this is a secret organization is absolutely not the case," Mr. Stukes said. "Our sole purpose is that we needed to focus as much as possible on the problems that exist for the black community, and we need to be on the same page as much as possible. We are trying to help the community with the largest problem."
Mr. Ambridge said: "I don't care what they say, we need to work together. There shouldn't be a group that meets and talks about my constituents."
Mr. Ambridge and other council members who believe the coalition should vanish say that there couldn't be a "White-American Coalition."
"Hey, that's their problem," Mrs. Dixon said. "They don't like the fact that we have a group of individuals who are developing strategies about our community."
Some white council members, even the most outspoken, are reluctant to enter a public debate on the coalition, fearing they may be perceived as racially insensitive.
"Unfortunately, this is what happens," said 1st District Councilman John L. Cain, who is white. "Things have become so PC [politically correct] over the last number of years, it is difficult to step outside of your own particular group to comment on some other person or group. This is a very difficult topic to discuss because of the perceptions that could be taken."
Councilman Martin O'Malley of the 3rd District, also a white, said he doesn't feel threatened by the coalition but thinks black members have outgrown the need for it.
"How can I say this so I don't offend?" Mr. O'Malley asked. "As the majority, I think they have become less relevant as a political force. I don't think the council will miss anything if their presence is not there."
Mr. Stukes said the issue will besidelined until the newest council members become more comfortable in their positions.
"I'm not going to push the issue right now," he said. "We'll see what happens."