Political discord turns to harmony Balto. Co. delegation finds joint districts with city can work

April 07, 1997|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Regional politics got a rocky start after the 1994 elections -- six Baltimore delegates representing small portions of Baltimore County were barred from a county delegation meeting and denied full votes for a year.

But three General Assembly sessions later, the thaw has been so great that when the county community colleges erupted in turmoil, the delegation's chairman chose one of those six -- Del. James W. Campbell -- to lead a group charged with finding solutions.

The teamwork and combined strength of the county and city legislators, backed by the support of County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, has paid off on several key issues without causing major problems, officials from the localities said. And the benefits go beyond concrete achievements.

"They get to know us as people and as legislators," Campbell said. "And we're understanding the county and its issues more. There's been a wall between the city and county, and this has helped break down that wall."

The city-county districts were created after the 1990 census revealed that Baltimore had lost thousands of residents.

Some county politicians reacted bitterly, charging that the city avoided losing a senator and three delegates at the county's expense. That led to the chilly reception the six city-county delegates first received -- and some county delegates still harbor that feeling.

Despite important cooperative gains, including more school construction money for the county and a $254 million city school rescue package, some county delegates still yearn for districts that don't cross boundaries.

"It has worked better than I thought," Del. John S. Arnick, a Dundalk Democrat, conceded. "It has given us more clout.

"But Baltimore County should be its own county. Once this creeping thing starts, where does it stop?"

Del. A. Wade Kach, a north county Republican, said it's unfair for city-based delegates to get six votes in delegation caucuses despite representing a total of about 34,000 county residents; he has one vote for his 35,000 constituents. Those extra city votes helped gain House approval this year for a perennial loser -- a county bill allowing the local teachers union to negotiate to collect fees from nonmembers.

He also contends that former Gov. William Donald Schaefer redrew district boundaries to "cut up Republican strongholds and attach them to heavily Democratic areas," diluting the Republicans' strength. Kach points to Republican Ruxton, now part of a heavily Democratic district that covers Northwest Baltimore and the county neighborhoods of Pikesville and Colonial Village.

Even county delegation chairman Joseph J. Minnick still yearns for the sliver of his old Dundalk district -- and its 3,000 loyal Democratic voters -- lost to a city-dominated district.

"That's where I grew up -- the church where I went as a kid," he said. "I can't explain to those people on the other side of Holabird Avenue when they ask me: 'Why do I have to vote for this other delegate when you're my delegate.' "

Still, the teachers union bill isn't a major item, all agree. Minnick provided the winning margin for that bill -- which he sponsored -- by breaking a 13-13 tie.

And Arnick's worst 1994 prediction -- of a damaging fight between the city and the county over school funding -- hasn't panned out. In fact, Ruppersberger helped save the city school aid package by breaking with Washington-area legislators who wanted to kill the deal unless they got more state money, too.

"There hasn't been a single issue in three years where the county and the county executive have wanted us to vote one way, and the city and the mayor have wanted us to vote the other," Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg said. Rosenberg hails from the 42nd District, one of the split districts.

Last year, city-based Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman and county-based Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell combined on a bill creating a pilot program offering property tax breaks for people who buy homes in two struggling neighborhoods -- one in the city and one in the county.

And this year Campbell, whose Northwest Baltimore district now includes about 24,000 county residents, was the logical choice to lead the group studying the three county community colleges, Minnick said.

He has the technical expertise, and another qualification made him the perfect objective arbiter: city residency.

"He has no real [vested] interest in the colleges," Minnick said, noting that none of the colleges is in his district.

Pub Date: 4/07/97

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