A small setback for good government

Petition bid fails: Lack of valid signatures derails referendum on downsizing City Council.

September 02, 2000

THE REFERENDUM effort to downsize Baltimore's 18-member City Council failed. But the reasons to reshape this antiquated, oversized and super-expensive body remain as compelling as ever.

That's why the League of Women Voters' inability to collect enough signatures to prompt a citywide vote should be regarded only as a temporary setback.

The league proposed increasing the number of council districts from six to nine. But because each district would have one representative -- instead of three -- the council would have been cut in half. Other groups have proposed other rearrangements.

A 15-member study group appointed by City Council President Sheila Dixon will now take a look at the matter. It is expected to make its recommendation in six months -- long before new census figures are in and the council will have to redraw district lines to reflect population shifts.

Over the past two centuries, the City Council's size and organization have changed often. A bicameral form was tried once. And in the 1950s, the Third (northeast) and Fifth (northwest) districts elected four council representatives; other districts elected only three. In other words, nothing about the council is cast in stone.

The biggest obstacle to reorganizing and downsizing the council is the self-interest of incumbents, who barely need to lift a finger to get re-elected and make $48,000 a year for part-time work. Quite understandably, they don't want their gravy train to grind to a halt.

An 18-member council may have made sense when Baltimore's population was approaching 1 million. But with a shrinking population of 625,000, taxpayers can no longer afford this largesse.

Two more populous counties, Montgomery and Prince George's, function well with nine-member councils. Baltimore County thrives with seven. Change is needed in the city. The question now is when it will be affected.

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