Baltimore's bloated body politic

Urban Chronicle

Size: Of the 20 largest U.S. cities, only the council in Indianapolis represents fewer residents per council member.

February 07, 2002|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

WITH PRESSURE building for a reduction in the size of the City Council, the question arises: How bloated is Baltimore's 19-member legislative body?

The simple answer: pretty darn bloated.

That's not just compared with jurisdictions like Montgomery and Baltimore counties, which have far more people than the city but manage with far fewer legislators.

Given historical and geographical differences, comparing the city with the state's largest counties is perhaps a classic case of mixing apples and oranges.

The size of Baltimore's council is also excessive compared with councils of other major cities.

With 19 council members for 651,154 people, Baltimore has 34,271 residents per legislator.

According to a quick little Internet and telephone survey I conducted, and a few strokes on my calculator, that's fewer than any of the country's 20 largest cities except Indianapolis.

Indianapolis has 29 council members for 791,926 people, or 27,308 residents per member.

But Indianapolis' legislators are "citizen lawmakers" who get a base salary of $11,400, plus roughly another $5,000 if they attend all their committee hearings and council meetings; Baltimore's council members are paid $48,000 whether they show up or not.

Besides Indianapolis, of the cities in the top 20, only New York, with 51 legislators for 8 million people, and Chicago, with 50 council people for 2.9 million people, have larger councils than does Baltimore.

Los Angeles, with about 3.7 million people, has 15 council members. That works out to nearly 250,000 residents per legislator, the most of any major city. If Baltimore had the same ratio of residents to council members, it could have a legislative body smaller than the five-member Board of Estimates.

Last week, Baltimore Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, the House majority leader, joined the growing chorus of those demanding a reduction in the size of the City Council.

McIntosh threatened to kill a bill to change the date of the city's primary unless the city "substantially" reduced the size of its council.

A coalition of civic, community and labor groups is working to get on the November ballot a charter amendment to cut the size of the council to 15 members, with 14 single-member districts and a president elected citywide; two proposals from the council would reduce the council by two and four members respectively, but would preserve multimember districts.

The proposals are hardly drastic: Even with a 15-member council, Baltimore would have fewer residents per council member than all but 15 of the top 20 cities; even with a 15-member council, Baltimore would have several more council members than the much larger cities of Phoenix, San Diego, Houston, San Antonio, Detroit and San Jose, Calif.

The model city charter offered by the National Civic League is instructive. It doesn't specify how many members a council should have but does say smaller is generally better - smaller being five to nine members.

"Although in the largest cities a greater number of council members may be necessary to assure equitable distribution, there is general agreement that smaller city councils are more effective instruments for the development of programs and conduct of municipal business than large local legislative bodies," the league says.

In practice, the size of a council - and it configuration - has little to do with effective governance, according to Doug Peterson, senior policy analyst with the National League of Cities.

"It's the ultimate political question," he said.

In Columbus, Ohio, seven council members, all elected at large, serve a growing population that is 60,000 greater than Baltimore's, with no proposal to enlarge the body, said Daniel Trevas, communications director for Council President Matthew D. Habash.

"We have a network of concerned activists who give us good feedback," he said.

In Austin, Texas, an even-faster growing city that has about the same number of people as Baltimore and six council members, the council is considering a charter amendment to expand to 10 members. (In Austin, as in a number of other cities, the mayor also has a vote on the council.)

But Mark Nathan, an aide to council member Will Wynn, who supports the initiative, said it is being driven by a desire to change the method of election from at-large to single-member districts and not by a feeling that the city has too few council members; expanding the council is thought to be the best way to achieve diversity under the new system.

In Los Angeles, having relatively few council members for the size of the city ensures each a degree of power and influence, said David Gershwin, spokesman for Council President Alex Padilla.

"It's certainly a workable number," Gershwin said.

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