Coalition submits petitions to transform City Council

Group's plan would create 14 single-member districts

May 22, 2002|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

A coalition of unions and community organizations delivered a ribbon-wrapped stack of petitions to Mayor Martin O'Malley's office yesterday in a bid to change the way Baltimore is governed.

With a theatrical flourish foiled a bit by the strictures of City Hall security, the group presented 10,600 signatures supporting a plan to cut the City Council by four members and create 14 single-member districts. They hope to put the issue on the ballot in November.

"The system does not work," said Willie E. Ray of Park Heights, president of the local chapter of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. "We need City Council members who represent us."

The coalition filed the signatures one day before a City Council committee meeting on two other plans for shrinking the 19-member council - one by four members, the other by two.

The council's Judiciary and Legislative Investigations Committee is scheduled to discuss those two proposals, offered by council members, at a meeting at 5 p.m. today in the council chambers.

The committee also will consider a third plan designed to wrest the Board of Estimates from the mayor's control by eliminating two mayoral appointees from the panel. But the committee does not plan to take up the coalition's proposal.

The coalition behind the petition drive is Community and Labor United for Baltimore (CLUB). In addition to ACORN, the group includes members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the City Union of Baltimore, the Baltimore Green Party and the League of Women Voters.

Two years ago, the league tried and failed to get the 10,000 signatures required to put the issue on the ballot. Since then, state lawmakers also have weighed in, saying the council should shrink - just as the city's population has in recent decades.

CLUB members say council members would be more responsive and accountable to constituents if Baltimore had 14 single-member districts instead of the current six, three-member districts. The council president would continue to be elected citywide under CLUB's plan.

Smaller districts would make it easier for less affluent, less established candidates to get elected, CLUB members said. Cutting the council would also help the cash-strapped city save money. Council members make $48,000 a year.

After CLUB began its petition drive last fall, two council members introduced bills advocating more modest changes to the council.

City Council President Sheila Dixon proposed a 15-member council - seven two-member districts plus the council president. Councilman Robert W. Curran, a Northeast Baltimore Democrat, suggests a 17-member council, with four four-member districts and the president.

Curran, chairman of the committee meeting tonight, called the push for single-member council districts an attempt to "gerrymander a district that a Republican could win."

CLUB contends that its plan would help poor neighborhoods get better representation.

Mindful that many petition signatures could be invalidated, CLUB plans to collect an additional 10,000 names before the Aug. 12 deadline, Glenard S. Middleton Sr., president of AFSCME Local 44, said at a news conference outside City Hall yesterday morning.

The news conference wrapped up with an ACORN summer intern swooping up to the podium in a leotard, mask and cape emblazoned with the words, "Single Member District Hero."

"To City Hall," she cried, one hand thrust in the air, the other weighed down with the bound stack of petitions.

But the hero, aka Danielle Hannah, 20, of West Baltimore, soon found she couldn't just fly into City Hall. Security guards stationed at the front door first made her dig out her driver's license, sign a visitor's log and submit to scanning by a metal-detecting wand.

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