The path of least resistance

Power struggle: Baltimore City Council is no match for the state legislature.

March 24, 2002

QUESTION: Why does Baltimore's loopy election schedule (which would have voters making primary choices 14 months before the next general election) have anything to do with the ridiculous size of the City Council?

Answer: Because the legislature says it does.

That may be a political retort, rather than a logical one -- but it reflects a reality that City Council President Sheila Dixon and her colleagues have no choice but to accept. They can't win a fight with Annapolis over either issue, so the smart thing to do would be to capitulate on both and spare themselves (and the city) an embarrassing spectacle.

The truth is, the council's problems here are of its own making. No one has forced members to hem and haw for two years over reducing the council's size to match Baltimore's massive loss of population. And no one told its members to facilitate a switch in the general election cycle without checking to see whether the primary could also be moved. But since they did, they now need legislators to grant them a favor and move the primary.

Annapolis lawmakers would probably grant that favor if city officials also agreed to make city elections coincide with statewide balloting. (They currently coincide with federal elections.)

But council members balked at that suggestion. They like holding off-year elections because it allows them to run for statewide seats without giving up their positions.

That's why the legislators are now threatening to put a council reduction measure on the November ballot. It's a strong-arm tactic designed to put pressure on council members to cooperate on the election cycle change. If they don't want to play nice over that, the thinking goes, let's just see how they feel once a few of them lose their seats.

The council has little room to maneuver here. And Ms. Dixon and her colleagues would be smart to remember what happened when the clowns who used to run city schools repeatedly spurned legislative requests: Lawmakers took over, broomed the folks who had opposed them and did what they wanted done in the first place.

The council has little choice but to switch the general election dates. And it can make itself less prone to these kinds of tactics by reducing its size on its own.

That's politics -- and next time, the council might fare better if it plays a little smarter.

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