Council size to be issue on ballot

Coalition submits sufficient signatures

Proposal would cut 4 members

City representatives scramble for own plans

July 31, 2002|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Baltimore voters will have the chance to shrink the 19-member City Council this fall, elections officials said yesterday as a petition drive to get the plan on the November ballot cleared its last hurdle.

City elections officials validated 10,065 signatures -- 65 more than needed -- submitted by a coalition of community groups and labor unions that has been working for months to get the measure on the ballot.

"This is something a wide range of people in Baltimore believe in. They commonly believe we need reform of the City Council," said Isabel Lipman, political director for the local chapter of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), which is part of the coalition.

The plan would cut four members from the council and create 14 single-member districts. A 15th member, the council president, would run at-large. Currently, 18 council members run in six three-member districts and the president runs at large.

Smaller, single-member districts are intended to make it easier for less-established candidates to get elected, and to increase accountability because voters in each district would have just one member representing them.

If passed by voters, the plan would represent the first change to the council's structure since its membership was trimmed from 21 to 19 in 1967 -- a time when the election of four black candidates made headlines.

Opponents warned that the single-district plan would turn back the clock on racial progress by creating smaller, more parochial constituencies.

"It could lead to less diversity on the council," said 3rd District Councilman Robert W. Curran. "As it is right now, there's 13 African-Americans, six whites, 10 women [and] nine men, which is a perfect reflection of the way the city population is.

"Look at my friends in Baltimore County. They've got seven white males. That's what's going to happen. You're going to have a council that doesn't represent the city's diversity."

City Council members opposed to the change were scrambling yesterday to revive their council reform bills, which have languished for months in Curran's committee.

Those plans cut the size of the council by two to four members but do not create single-member districts. Some expand the size of districts, adding up to two at-large seats in addition to the president's.

Supporters of larger districts say they would give council members a more "global" view of the city while the single-member plan would "Balkanize" Baltimore.

Getting one of the council-proposed plans on the ballot would give the voters more choices, supporters say. It would also reduce the chances for any change because the different plans likely would cancel each other out if voters pass more than one, the coalition notes.

The city solicitor's office has said preliminarily that passage of conflicting plans would invalidate all of them.

Council President Sheila Dixon alerted colleagues yesterday that the coalition had crossed the 10,000-signature threshold, trying to rally support for her plan: a 15-member council, with seven two-member districts plus the at-large council president.

While the coalition needed 10,000 signatures to bring its plan before voters, council members only have to muster 10 votes -- a majority of the council -- to put theirs on the ballot.

At its last meeting, the council could not summon 10 votes for such a plan. It has a last chance at its next meeting Aug. 12.

But getting approval at that late date will be tougher, because the council would have to waive normal voting procedures. Fifteen members instead of the usual 10 would have to agree for the vote to take place.

Even so, Dixon and Curran were optimistic. Curran has proposed a 17-member council, with four four-member districts and an at-large president.

"We would hope the council will give the voters that chance to choose between single-member districts or multi-member districts, or reject both," Curran said.

The coalition behind the petition drive is Community and Labor United for Baltimore (CLUB), a group that has criticized the council on a wide range of matters, including library closings, predatory lending and the privatization of city jobs -- issues Dixon says the council has little or no power to affect.

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