Council split by plan for blacks-only retreat Legal feud looms over possible violation of public meetings law

January 25, 1996|By Robert Guy Matthews | Robert Guy Matthews,SUN STAFF

A growing racial rift within the Baltimore City Council over a planned blacks-only retreat tomorrow and Saturday may turn into a legal feud that could pit some white members against their black colleagues.

At issue is whether the 10 black council members -- enough to pass legislation in the 19-member panel -- are breaking public meeting laws that require meetings to be open to the public when a majority is present and any business is discussed.

The conflict also is about hurt feelings and power. White council members don't like feeling excluded, and black council members don't want to have their actions dictated by others.

Yesterday, 2nd District Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge issued an ultimatum to the African-American Coalition, the members' group that organized the retreat: Invite everyone or the state attorney general will be alerted.

"For the council to break off into groups only encourages the rest of the city to do that," Mr. Ambridge said. "It's not right, and I'm very upset about it."

Sixth District Councilman Melvin L. Stukes, head of the coalition, said the overnight retreat, to be held at the downtown Hyatt Regency hotel, will proceed without the white members. He said no council business will be discussed.

"If we have violated any laws, then we expect to be arrested when we come out of the meeting," Mr. Stukes said.

Assistant Attorney General Jack Schwartz said that just because a majority of the council congregates does not mean the meeting must be open to the public. The law, he said, would be broken if city business is discussed.

"One of the problems with enforcement is that if the meeting is closed, there is not any sure way to know what's going on. All you can do is ask," Mr. Schwartz said. "There is a line that potentially gets crossed when a quorum is present."

Soon after the November election, questions about the future of the African-American Coalition -- a group formed in 1988 to focus on black issues in a largely white council -- began to surface.

Most white council members -- and Council President Lawrence A. Bell III, who is black -- said they wondered whether the group should be disbanded because the racial majority of the council has since reversed. The remaining black members say the group is needed because of pervasive problems in the black community.

Last week, Mr. Stukes sent letters and phone requests to the selected members asking whether they would confirm their attendance. Some of the white members then fired off memos asking that all council members be included.

"I strive to represent all segments of my very diverse district, including African-American constituents in the 1st District, and resent the implication that, because I am not African-American, I cannot address concerns of the African-American community," Councilwoman Lois Garey wrote Mr. Stukes.

Fourth District Councilwoman Sheila Dixon, a coalition member, said white members are unnecessarily alarmed. She said the coalition is meant to empower blacks, not exclude whites.

Coalition members said police, housing, education and economic development officials were invited to the retreat, where discussion will focus on how the politicians can better assist the black community.

Now that Mr. Ambridge has threatened legal action against the coalition, the council rift may be felt for some time, no matter what the outcome.

"You can tell that people's feelings are hurt," said 3rd District Councilwoman Joan Carter Conway. "It's a sensitivity thing, and it's an ethnic thing."

Mrs. Garey, Mr. Ambridge and Mr. Bell all said in their letters that the coalition's meetings threatened council unity.

"It would be counterproductive for the coalition to exclude any member of the council from its activities," Mr. Bell wrote.

Mr. Stukes said he doesn't believe there will be any long-term effects because of the coalition's exclusion of the white members.

"The anxiety level is high now, but this will blow over," Mr. Stukes said. "We [blacks] need to be as organized as we possibly can, and we wish that people will leave us alone so we can go ahead."

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