Council discusses thinning its ranks

2 proposed amendments to city charter given little chance to pass

Long-simmering issue

May 23, 2002|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

The City Council held a hearing last night on two proposed city charter amendments to trim its membership in the wake of calls to shrink the body because of the declining city population.

Though the bills to reduce the 19-seat council were proposed by two of its members, it appears unlikely that either will pass.

City Council President Sheila Dixon, who is proposing cutting the council by four, said that she surveyed members after the meeting and few were in support of her measure.

"One of my colleagues just told me, `Hell, no,'" Dixon said. "I haven't finished talking to all of them, but it looks weak."

The size of the council has been a long-simmering issue as many question whether the city needs so many council members, who earn $48,000 a year. A coalition of community and labor activists, galvanized by layoffs of city workers, say a reshaped, smaller council would be more accountable.

The city has six three-member districts and a council president elected at large, for a total of 19 members.

Last summer, a commission appointed by Dixon and chaired by former Councilman Carl Stokes recommended the council shrink to seven two-member districts with a council president. The activist coalition has collected more than 10,000 signatures to have a referendum placed on the ballot to change the council to 14 single-member districts and a president.

Councilman Melvin L. Stukes, a Southwest Baltimore Democrat, said the proposal to trim the council smacks of racism.

"I am not going to participate in any process that is going to lessen the base of African-American elected officials," Stukes said last night.

Marvin Cheatham, president of the city election board and member of the Stokes commission, took umbrage at Stukes' remarks saying that he has worked for years to include blacks in the political process.

"Regardless of which way this goes, we need to learn from this," Cheatham testified. "There is a concern coming from your constituents that they feel they don't have accountability."

Also last night, the council held a hearing about changing the charter to shrink the size of the Board of Estimates, the five-member body that controls city expenditures. The measure would reduce the power of the mayor, who controls the majority of votes.

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