Delegates vow City Council will shrink

Move follows failure to agree on timing of municipal elections

March 20, 2002|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

State lawmakers said yesterday that they would ensure that November's ballot includes a proposal to shrink the size of the Baltimore City Council - a response to the city's failure to agree on the timing of municipal elections.

The response from lawmakers comes after Mayor Martin O'Malley asked legislators to withdraw bills that would have moved Baltimore's primary election from September 2003 to September 2004.

"Next year when we're in session, when the City Council knows what size it's going to be, I think we will be able to look at the issue in the right perspective," said Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat and House majority leader.

The move drew a sharp reaction from City Council President Sheila Dixon, who questioned the state's authority to involve itself in determining the size of the 19-member council. She said timing of the municipal elections should not be tied to the size of the council.

"One doesn't have anything to do with the other," Dixon said. "They're now meddling in city business. I don't believe that they have that authority."

Two bills to reduce the size of the body are pending in the City Council - action taken after a push for a smaller council gained momentum late last year.

Two years ago, the League of Women Voters tried and failed to get the 10,000 signatures required to put the issue on the ballot. Since then, several key lawmakers in Annapolis have said they believe that with 19 members, Baltimore's City Council is bloated for a jurisdiction that has lost 300,000 residents over the last few decades.

Changing the election dates would bring the city's primary in line with the municipal general election during presidential years, which city voters agreed to move in a 1999 referendum. Without a change, the primary and general elections will be 14 months apart.

Part of the concern about Baltimore's election schedule has been that the elections for mayor, governor and council president are held in different years. Baltimore is the only one of Maryland's 24 major jurisdictions that holds a local election separate from the state, costing taxpayers an extra $4 million, city and state officials said.

Another issue that irritates legislators is that city officials can now run for state offices without surrendering their seats, because the city elections are held in separate years from state elections.

The problem for the city is that while counties and municipalities can pick the date of their general elections, only the state has the authority to set primary elections. So the city since 2000 has been looking for the state to finish the deal and move the primary to the same year as the general election.

Last week, McIntosh gave what she said was her "last offer" to city officials, proposing to move the primary to September 2004 to coincide with the scheduled November 2004 general election. Then, beginning in 2006, the municipal elections would be held in the same years as state races.

The city rejected the idea. "We just couldn't reach a consensus between the city and the legislators," said Yolanda Winkler, a city lobbyist, after asking lawmakers to withdraw the bills.

With the bills withdrawn yesterday from consideration this session, the legislature must act during next year's 90-day session or the city's municipal primary will take place 14 months before the general election in November 2004. And the city is likely to face a tough battle with legislators who increasingly support having Baltimore's municipal elections during the same year as state races.

As if to underscore her show of political strength, McIntosh took off her jacket yesterday, flexed her right arm, and said, "Feel that."

She's not alone in her mission.

"The House and Delegate McIntosh have the lead on this," said Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, an East Baltimore Democrat who heads the city Senate delegation.

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