Needed: a smaller City Council Downsizing: In Baltimore, one elected official, instead of three, ought to represent each district.

October 11, 1998

KURT L. SCHMOKE has become the first elected city official to question the need for Baltimore's oversized City Council. He recently said the legislative body of 19 is too large when jurisdictions of comparable size get along with far fewer council members.

A nine-member City Council, he said, "is worthy of discussion among citizens. That conversation ought to occur."

Now that the mayor has turned the corner, he ought to introduce a charter amendment to create a smaller council. The citizens of Baltimore could vote on the change in next year's election.

Adding urgency to the matter is a scathing report on the council's performance by former Councilwoman Vera P. Hall, until recently Mayor Schmoke's council liaison. She criticized council members for their failure to understand the city budget. Fiscal expertise is sorely lacking on the council, which has never fully appreciated its budgetary responsibilities.

Baltimore has had a bewildering array of City Council arrangements. As recently as the 1950s, it had a peculiar system in which two of the geographically largest and most populous districts elected four council members each while the other districts elected three each. That gave way to the current system, under which each of the six districts elects three members.

During the city's 1991 redistricting, revisions were proposed, in line with Baltimore's drastically reduced population. Among them were proposals for six or nine two-member districts. In a referendum, voters rejected a third option: 11 single-member districts.

It's now time to reopen the discussion.

In 1993, a charter revision commission hotly debated the issue but narrowly decided to recommend maintaining the status quo.

The commission's report noted:

"Supporters of single-member districts claim that they give individual communities greater autonomy and more direct access to the legislative process; enhance the two party system; make campaigns less expensive; and encourage greater turnover in representation, increasing accountability. They correctly observe that [most] cities and counties have single-member districts.

"On the other hand, the supporters of multimember districts claim that they encourage coalition politics; unify constituencies along racial and other lines; avoid excessive parochialism and the Balkanization of the legislative branch; and give elected officials the larger vision that comes from representing a more diverse population."

For decades, The Sun subscribed to the latter arguments. That editorial position changed a year ago after seeing that the presumed advantages of a multimember system were missing on the City Council. The current system has produced a council that is collectively inefficient and full of weak and unresponsive office-holders.

Nine single-member districts promise to return some vigor to the council. The districts would be smaller and election contests would be keener. Officials who have lost their interest and effectiveness would have a tougher time winning another term.

Pub Date: 10/11/98

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