City Council's future

October 02, 2002

An editorial yesterday said the number of City Council members has not changed since 1922; however, from 1946 to 1966 there were two additional members.

COURT OF APPEALS Judge John C. Eldridge has given Baltimore voters a clear choice in next month's election by leaving just one City Council reorganization question on the ballot. His ruling Monday grants voters an opportunity to effect the most meaningful change in the municipal government in 70 years.

The voters should welcome this chance. Not because the proposal to reduce the council from 19 to 15 members is perfect, but because a single-member council is the best way to get rid of tired timeservers and improve council members' responsiveness and accountability to their constituents.

Since 1999, when the Baltimore City League of Women Voters failed to force a referendum on this question, it has become unmistakably clear that the council, as it is currently constituted, has outlived its usefulness. Yet the council's incumbents failed to recognize this reality.

For a time, City Council President Sheila Dixon seemed ready to embrace reform. She appointed a commission to study the council's future. But after the commission recommended seven two-member districts, she dropped the ball. She championed that concept -- and won the council's support for it -- only after a grass-roots petition drive forced the issue by getting a single-member district proposal on the ballot. Even then, the council's desperate last-minute action was done in such a sneaky way that Judge Eldridge ruled that it violated open-meeting laws.

If voters approve 14 single-member districts plus an at-large council president, a number of things are likely to happen in the 2005 municipal elections. As tickets become irrelevant, incumbents are more likely to lose to more energetic challengers. The new council is probably going to be more diverse: There will be community activists, and perhaps even the first Republican since 1939.

This would be a healthy outcome. A more representative and vocal council would provide a better counterbalance to the mayor, whom the City Charter has endowed with extraordinary power.

The multimember council scheme is a rarity among U.S. cities; most follow the single-member district concept. Yet Baltimore's arrangement -- and the number of council members -- has remained unchanged since 1922, when voters abolished a two-chamber legislative body.

Since 1950, Baltimore has lost a third of its population. The once-wealthy city has grown poorer and lost much of its former prominence. Yet its council is bloated in comparison with far bigger Montgomery and Baltimore counties.

With only one council reorganization question remaining on next month's ballot, Baltimore voters can implement a long-overdue reform. They should grab this opportunity and vote for change.

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