Council bill would move city elections Races would coincide with campaigns for Md., federal offices

Plan is said to cut costs

Baltimore voters would have to decide on Curran proposal

November 10, 1998|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's next mayor, City Council and comptroller might serve for a term of three or five years, instead of the traditional four in order for city elections to coincide with state or federal races.

Northwest Baltimore Councilman Robert Curran has introduced a bill proposing the change, which he estimated would save the city about $4 million in election costs. City elections are scheduled for next year and 2003. Curran's bill would alter the second election to line up with state races in 2002 or the presidential race in 2004.

"The time has come," Curran said. "There is no reason to have an off-year election."

The bill, which would require charter amendment support from city voters in next year's election, has gained backing from 13 of the 19 council members.

"It's a change that is long overdue," said Herb Smith, Western Maryland College political science professor. "There's no real significant justification for staging an election in an off year for Baltimore City."

If approved by voters, the measure is expected to enhance voter turnout. More prominent political races, particularly for president, attract a larger numbers of voters to the polls. In 1995, city races garnered 20 percent of the city's registered voters, the lowest in 50 years. In the 1996 presidential election, 50 percent of the city's voters cast ballots, more than twice the city election turnout.

"More people vote in the presidential election," said Baltimore Elections Director Barbara E. Jackson. "People understand the difference between the legislature and the federal candidates."

More competition?

If approved, the change could result in city campaigns getting lost amid higher profile races such as the governor or presidential race. The switch would leave council members competing more heavily for advertising.

"On the con side, the local elections tend to get people focused on local issues," said Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who has not stated a position.

"We would lose the singular focus," he said.

The move would reduce the flexibility for city politicians wanting to jump into the state or federal arena. The current off-year elections give council members wanting to run for state or federal offices the ability to retain their city positions if they lose.

Most council members support changing the election cycle to correspond with the presidential race, which would give them more flexibility if they wanted to run in state races.

'Saves the taxpayers'

"It reduces the flexibility and option of politicians, but it saves the taxpayers," Smith said. "And every little bit helps for the Baltimore City budget."

Baltimore is facing a projected budget deficit of about $25 million for 2000. The city is spending from 2 percent to 4 percent more than it is taking in in tax revenue.

Jackson agreed that holding the elections simultaneously makes sense. "It would save plenty of money," she said.

The proposal to change the election years will be discussed by Curran's Policy and Planning Committee at 5 p.m. Nov. 18.

If approved by the council and signed by the mayor it would likely be put before city voters through a referendum in next year's city election.

Pub Date: 11/10/98

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