City Council to consider trimming size

Two bills respond to pressure to cut 19-member body

Officials earn $48,000

A third proposal would reduce Board of Estimates by two

January 11, 2002|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Facing a push by community activists to let voters decide whether the Baltimore City Council should shrink, two council members plan to introduce bills to trim the 19-member body themselves.

The bills to be introduced Monday by City Council President Sheila Dixon and Councilman Robert W. Curran, a Northeast Baltimore Democrat, will surely generate heated debate about the council's future. But council members and political observers say it is too early to tell if council members will vote to sacrifice their $48,000-a-year jobs.

"Nobody wants to lose their job. But politics are 24 hours," said Councilman Edward L. Reisinger, a Southwest Baltimore Democrat. "Who knows what's going to happen? I've seen votes change within an hour."

At the same time, some council members say they will introduce a bill to amend the City Charter to shrink the Board of Estimates, the five-member body that oversees all city expenditures. The measure would reduce the power of the mayor, who controls the majority of votes.

The council members want to eliminate two positions on the board - the city solicitor and public works director, both mayoral appointees - leaving a three-member panel made up of the mayor, City Council president and comptroller, all elected officials.

Councilwoman Paula Johnson Branch, an East Baltimore Democrat, will introduce the bill, which would cut the mayor's power over the budget enormously. She has picked up an important co-sponsor - Dixon, the council president.

Dixon said it would be a "healthy dialogue" to discuss changing the balance of power on the Board of Estimates.

"As we move forward, people's views might change," Dixon said. "Right now, if the mayor runs for governor and I ended up being mayor for a year or two, would I want to give up that kind of power the mayor has? Ultimately, the mayor holds the purse strings, so I wouldn't have a problem."

The bill - which like the trimming of the council would require a referendum on the ballot in the fall - has been introduced before, but has never been approved. Its passage would be an uphill battle because by law the mayor can veto charter amendments proposed by the council.

The council could override a mayoral veto with 15 votes - three-quarters of the members - and put the issue on the ballot. But that could mean a nasty political fight between Mayor Martin O'Malley and the council.

The structure of the Board of Estimates was approved in 1898, when the ruling Republican Party changed the City Charter to give the mayor more power over the budget, said Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at the Johns Hopkins University.

While the attempt to trim the Board of Estimates seems a long shot, some council members consider a shrinkage of their body to be inevitable.

The council has six three-member districts and a council president, a total of 19 members.

Recent calls for the council to shrink began in 2000 when the League of Women Voters proposed a 10-member council.

The league failed to get the 10,000 signatures required to put the issue on the ballot, but the push for a smaller council gained momentum late last year when a coalition of community activists and labor organizations began a campaign to create 14 single-member districts with the council president elected at large.

The activists hope to put the issue on the ballot in the fall.

Curran and Dixon offer two alternatives. Curran is proposing a 17-member council - four four-member districts and a council president.

Dixon's proposal for a 15-member council - seven two-member districts with a council president - is the recommendation of a committee she created to examine the issue after the League of Women Voters' failed effort.

That committee reasoned that the enormous loss of Baltimore's population over the past three decades meant that the city did not need as large a council.

"I think it will look a lot better if they downsize themselves than if somebody does it for them," said Crenson, a member of Dixon's committee.

But some council members seem dead set against it. The city's people are so needy that 19 council members are necessary to help them, they maintain.

"You are going to burn us out," said Councilman Melvin L. Stukes, a Southwest Baltimore Democrat.

"Anyone who thinks this is a part-time job, follow me around. ... This is Saturdays, Sundays, weddings, funerals, graduations."

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