Politics of sabotage

August 14, 2002

ABOUT THE only area in which the mostly irrelevant members of the Baltimore City Council excel is self-preservation. They will do (and have done) just about anything to keep their seats. Nothing underscores that fact more vividly than Monday's action to ensure that the bloated council (18 members serving six districts plus an at-large president) will not be reduced.

To achieve this, the council approved two charter referendums that ostensibly would downsize the council, but in fact would cancel out one another and a third one petitioned by a coalition of civic groups and labor activists. It's the worst kind of dirty trick.

Particularly disappointing in this affair is the behavior of City Council President Sheila Dixon. Two years ago, she seemed to sense a need for reform. She appointed a blue-ribbon commission. But that panel recommended a grab bag of options: keep the status quo; create a 15-member council in which each of the seven districts would elect two members and an at-large president, or carve the city into nine single-member districts, with an at-large president.

After much hesitation, Ms. Dixon proposed the 15-member option. But it went nowhere. Meanwhile, Councilman Robert W. Curran proposed a 16-member council with an at-large president. That plan, too, seemed doomed.

Yet after the citizens' coalition collected enough signatures to place its proposal for 14 single-member districts on the ballot in November, incumbents realized their cushy sinecures could be threatened. But again, they were unable to agree on a single alternative. That's why they decided on rival referendums, which will likely favor the status quo.

The council may have pulled a fast one here, but growing numbers of taxpayers are getting tired of timeservers on the council -- hacks who are good at voting themselves raises and preserving their seats, but accomplish little else.

While the city has endured a violent summer and a record-breaking wave of youth homicides, for example, the council has been busy passing meaningless resolutions imploring Baltimoreans not to use racially derogatory terms and acknowledging the importance of academic degrees. Members have even talked about holding a hearing to inform the public about the dangers of ID theft. Hardly the kind of work that might inspire citizens to see the value in keeping 18 council members around.

If the council reform is defeated in November, the citizens' coalition should quickly embark on another campaign -- to mobilize an effort to throw the rascals out in 2005.

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