Downsizing City Council not so easy

July 30, 2000|By Rochelle Spector

SHOULD the Baltimore City Council have nine single-member districts?

While I would welcome and encourage an opportunity for further discussion of this issue, and while I commend the League of Women Voters for its interest in and vigilance regarding Baltimore City government, I do not believe a ballot question with a specific number of single-member districts is the correct procedure at this time.

As a former president of the Maryland Association of Counties, and as the current Baltimore City Council representative to both the Maryland Association of Counties and the National Association of Counties, I am familiar with the issue of size of the local legislative body (be it council or commission) from varying and often diverse perspectives.

I am aware that local jurisdictions have their own needs, their own reasons for structuring their legislative bodies as they do, and these are not necessarily transferable to other jurisdictions purely on the basis of population size.

Baltimore City's governmental structure is different from other Maryland jurisdictions. It is the only city in Maryland that is its own jurisdiction, the position of City Council president elected city-wide and the person so elected serves as president of Baltimore City's fiscal body, the Board of Estimates. Does the proposed charter amendment affect this position? With nine council members plus a president, how would a tie vote be broken?

Baltimore is the economic, cultural and tourism hub of Maryland. It is also the workplace for thousands who live outside its boundaries and home to various state facilities: its port and many of its educational and health care institutions.

For those reasons, our politics must be global as well as parochial. Councils in neighboring jurisdictions do not bear the burdens Baltimore City's does in terms of making decisions which affect many more people than the resident population and tackling issues far wider-ranging than neighborhood and community. We must decide just what is an adequate number of people to perform these duties. And we must decide whether single-member districts would lead to a too-narrow orientation, to the detriment of the city's and state's best interests.

I am not certain a smaller council would be the most beneficial to Baltimore's citizens in terms of responding to their needs.

Having more than one representative per district allows us to be at more than one place at one time and provides alternatives in philosophical as well as practical styles.

As a local body, whose members work where they live, we are the first place our constituents turn for help. We are our constituents' "ombudsmen." We are their procurer of city services, we are their helping hand through the often-seeming maze of city bureaucracy, we are ally, mentor, adviser. With fewer council members, our citizens' requests may go unanswered, their needs unfulfilled.

Would a smaller council save money?

It would be less than thought at first glance. With fewer members, each member would, by necessity of the volume of work, need a larger staff. The salaries and benefits for these people would likely be equal to the current council costs.

Politically, it is quite possible that single-member districts could lead to re-emergence of machine politics. If that happens, then the goal of making council members more responsive to their constituents vanishes. In its place are council members more responsive to their district's controlling forces.

In addition, a small number of single-member districts would, quite possibly, prevent the city's diverse population from being fully represented. For example, Baltimore County's seven-member council is made up entirely of white males. Is that representative of the county's population?

As Baltimore City Council members, we already know that our jobs depend on producing results, both legislatively and the service the voters want. Our constituents are always free to choose against us in the next election. That is precisely what makes us responsive, and that is precisely democracy in action.

Finally, we must look to the results of the 2000 census to tell us the number of citizens in the city and where and how that population is distributed. We must determine how many citizens, on average, each council member should represent.

In addition, we must use census results to secure maximum representation for the city's citizens in the state legislature. That body will take up redistricting when it convenes in January. We are mandated to wait for that state redistricting before we do redistricting in the city.

In turn, we should wait to decide the size of the council so we can have a correlation between council and state legislative districts to ensure quality representation for Baltimoreans.

So what is the correct size for the council? How many representatives do our citizens need, and how should that representation be distributed?

I have supported and co-sponsored legislation designed to focus on "right-sizing" the council. I still feel that what the city needs is an earnest discussion of these questions, and I believe the League of Women Voters would better serve Baltimore's voters by facilitating forums on these questions, not by a rush to the ballot box.

Rochelle Spector is a member of the Baltimore City Council from the 5th District.

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