Appeals court voids council's election plan

Judge strips Question Q from the ballot for Nov. 5

City coalition proposal remains

It would trim four seats, create 1-member districts

October 01, 2002|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Maryland's highest court stripped a proposal to reshape the City Council from the November ballot yesterday, handing a surprise victory to a coalition of community and labor groups pushing a rival plan.

Reversing a Baltimore Circuit Court decision made days before, Court of Appeals Judge John C. Eldridge ordered election officials to take the council-backed "Question Q" off the Nov. 5 ballot.

The coalition contended in its lawsuit that the question should be removed because council members lined up support for it at an illegal closed-door meeting Aug. 8. Eldridge's order was not accompanied by a written opinion laying out the basis for his decision. The opinion will be forthcoming, the order said.

Late last week, Circuit Judge Kaye A. Allison found that the council likely violated the Open Meetings Act but denied the request to strike the question, saying that remedy was too drastic.

The reversal surprised coalition members, who want to shrink the 19-member council by four and create single-member districts. The council plan called for cutting four seats, but with two-member districts.

"David has beaten Goliath," said Glenard S. Middleton Sr., president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 44, which is part of the coalition.

City officials said they did not intend to appeal to the Supreme Court. City Solicitor Thurman W. Zollicoffer Jr. said that would make sense only if questions of federal law were raised.

"I'm a bit shocked," Zollicoffer said, noting that the council voted to put its plan on the ballot at an advertised open meeting Aug. 12. "Whether or not the Open Meetings Act was violated [Aug. 8], I think the real question is whether it tainted the [Aug. 12] proceedings, and I didn't think that it did. It seems like the relief ... is a bit harsh."

The coalition behind the suit calls itself Community and Labor United for Baltimore (CLUB). It also includes the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) and the League of Women Voters.

CLUB argues that its plan -- Question P -- would make the council more accountable to constituents than they are under the current three-member district system. The coalition also contends that the measure would save money. Council members make $48,000 a year.

Many council members say shrinking the panel's size would make it harder to provide service to constituents. Some say single-member districts would "Balkanize" the city, cater to parochial interests and make the council less racially diverse.

CLUB contends that the council wanted its plan on the ballot to confuse voters and to undermine coalition efforts. The plans would have appeared as separate questions and would have canceled each other out if both passed, according to opinions from the state attorney general and city solicitor.

After CLUB collected more than 10,000 signatures to place its plan on the ballot, Council President Sheila Dixon called the Aug. 8 meeting at City Hall to generate support for one of several alternatives.

No public notice was given. Dixon said that was because she did not expect a quorum.

The majority of the meeting was closed to the public on the grounds that there was no quorum. Two reporters and ACORN organizer Sultan Shakir walked in after a 10th member arrived, but three members left, ending the quorum and forcing observers out.

The council agreed at the meeting to choose one of four resizing bills at its next regular session, Aug. 12.

Council members vowed to campaign against the CLUB plan. "I still strongly believe that the multimember system works and is the best system for the city," Dixon said.

"We have our work to do," said 5th District Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector.

But Shakir, the ACORN organizer, said the council should direct its energies elsewhere.

"What we need is for city government to stop locking people out of important discussions and to start including the citizens of Baltimore," he said.

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