The City Council approved two conflicting referendum proposals last night to shrink its 19-member size. But critics saw the passage of dual ballot options as a clever maneuver to put before Baltimore voters measures that would cancel each other out, preventing any change.
Approval of the bills - one introduced by President Sheila Dixon, the other by Councilman Robert W. Curran - means that on Nov. 5, voters will be faced with three ballot initiatives to amend the city charter and cut either four or two seats from the council to save money.
A coalition of community activists and unions announced last month that it had collected enough signatures to place a referendum on the ballot to cut the council's size from 19 to 15 members and change the city's three-member district system to single-member districts.
Reacting to this challenge to the council's longstanding structure, Dixon and Curran scrambled in the past few days to win enough support for their alternative reform measures, which had languished in committee for months without enough votes to pass.
But during a sometimes unruly session last night, that support suddenly materialized. By a vote of 19-0, the council approved Dixon's ballot initiative, which would ask citizens to vote for or against reducing the council by four seats. It would create seven two-member districts and an at-large council president.
The council also voted 11-8 to approve Curran's initiative, which proposes cutting two seats and creating four four-member districts and an at-large president.
The state attorney general's office ruled July 18 that if voters approve more than one of the conflicting reform proposals, they would cancel each other out, meaning a continuation of the status quo.
"I think what the City Council has done is a dirty trick," said James Browning, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, a government watchdog group. "It's kind of like they are offering the voters a buffet and saying, `Eat as much as you want.' But if the voters select more than one food, all of it will be taken away from them."
Dixon said her intention was not to confuse the voters, but to give them more options than the downsizing proposal suggested by the unions and community activists.
"This gives the voters several choices to make on the referendums," Dixon said. "And I think more choice is a good thing because not everyone agrees on the single-member districts."
Supporters of Dixon's two-member district proposal - including Mayor Martin O'Malley - say that it would promote more teamwork and cooperation than having one representative per district. Many advocates of downsizing say that eliminating some of the $48,000-a-year council positions makes sense in light of the city's continuing financial crisis and population loss.
Each of the proposals passed last night requires O'Malley's signature to get on the November ballot. The mayor said last night that he will read the bills and make up his mind, according to press secretary Tony White.
Curran said after the meeting that voters are intelligent enough to pick one of the three council reform proposals, and are unlikely to vote in favor of all of them. The ballot questions will give voters the option of voting yes or no on each.