Report on council's size to be released

Panel offers 2 plans on cutting city government, but may call for no change

April 04, 2001|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

A panel tapped last fall to study the size and structure of Baltimore's 19-member City Council will release a report today that contains recommendations to trim the council to 15 members, or possibly even 10.

Or not at all.

The report by the President's Advisory Commission on Council Representation -- which was named by Council President Sheila Dixon and headed by former Councilman Carl Stokes -- points out that Baltimore is the only city of its size with three council members representing each district.

Most cities and all of Maryland's counties have single-member districts.

However, the report does not strongly advocate single-member districts in Baltimore, and Stokes said the final recommendation could be to do nothing, because the majority of the panel's 15 members seemed inclined not to change.

"The sentiment is stronger not to downsize," said Stokes, who represented East Baltimore's 2nd District and ran unsuccessfully for president of the council and mayor.

The commission's report also lists suggestions for making the council more efficient and accountable to the public. The report recommends that the council no longer vote on its own salary raises, and it suggests trimming the number of committees and subcommittees.

But the more anticipated piece of the report was its findings on potential changes to the size of the City Council. The report offers two alternative plans, each of which would change the number of councilmanic districts.

One plan would create nine single-member council districts. The other plan would create seven two-member districts. In both plans, a council president would be elected at large.

The council has had 19-members -- three representatives for each of the six legislative districts and an at-large president -- since 1967, when its size was trimmed from 21.

The commission has scheduled a public hearing at 6 p.m. April 25 at Polytechnic Institute/Western High School before voting on which recommendation to send to the all-Democratic City Council.

The advisory panel was named in response to pressure from the League of Women Voters, which conducted a petition drive last year to put a referendum for a 10-member council on the November ballot. The league failed to gain the 10,000 valid signatures required, but Dixon agreed to form a group to explore possible changes to the council size.

Those in favor of a leaner council argue that the city's population has declined by a third in the past half-century.

The cash-strapped city also could save hundreds of thousands of dollars by cutting the number of council and staff salaries. More than a quarter of the council's $3.5 million budget is in salaries: $48,000 each for the 18 part-time council members and $80,000 for Dixon.

The state's other large jurisdictions are served by much smaller councils; seven members in Baltimore County and nine members in both Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

"I think the issue of accountability is critical," said Millie Tyssowski, president of the League of Women Voters and a member of the commission. "And when there's one member [the public knows] who to hold accountable."

But City Council members have said that cutting the size of the council would impair its ability to provide service to constituents.

Northeast Baltimore Councilman Robert W. Curran said single-member districts create "fiefdoms" and that multiple-member districts "force you to build bridges."

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