Mayor opposes plan for council

Minority representation could be lost, he says

`Would be Balkanizing'

Group seeks smaller panel, single-member districts

October 03, 2002|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Mayor Martin O'Malley expressed strong opposition yesterday to a City Council reform proposal, claiming single-member districts will lead to less minority representation and a fragmentation of city politics.

"Single-member districts would be Balkanizing and polarizing ... and make the council much more vulnerable to narrow special interests," said O'Malley, who stood beside Council President Sheila Dixon and other council members at a news conference in City Hall.

A representative of a citizens group pushing to shrink the council from 19 to 15 members accused the mayor of playing on baseless racial fears to save the jobs of his council allies.

"We are tired of the mayor and the City Council using scare tactics to try to scare voters away from reform," said Sultan Shakir, an organizer with the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, one of the activist groups that worked with unions, the League of Women Voters and the Green Party to get the reform proposal on the ballot.

Voters will decide Nov. 5 whether to reduce the council's size and create 14 districts with one council member representing each district, plus an at-large City Council president.

The city is divided into six districts, each with three council members; the council president is elected at large.

Eliminating four council positions, which pay $48,000 a year, plus staff members, would save the city about $573,776 a year, according to city budget figures.

Reform advocates say such cost savings make sense because the city is short of money and has lost at least 28 percent of its population in the three decades since the last time the council size was reduced, from 21 to 19 members in 1967.

Thirteen of 19 council members are African-American, giving the council about the same proportion of minority representation as the city's general population, which is about two-thirds black.

Those backing the ballot proposal argue that city voters are likely to keep the council about two-thirds black whether it has 19 or 15 members, Shakir said.

If the proposal -- called Question P -- passes, the council and mayor would create the new districts, and there is no reason they couldn't draw the lines in such a way to make sure the city has enough minority representation, said Shakir.

Proponents of single-member districts also argue this system would make council members more individually accountable to the voters in their districts, who now are often confused about which of their three representatives is responsible for various issues.

Yesterday, O'Malley said that a disadvantage of small, single-member districts is that council members might lose an election if they vote to approve development projects that offend neighborhood groups that don't have the community's greater good in mind.

Dixon agreed, saying: "With single-member districts, council members might be more narrow-minded and focus on their own little districts, instead of the whole city."

Until recently, the council had a reform proposal on the ballot that would have eliminated four council positions but kept larger multimember districts. But the Maryland Court of Appeals pulled this from the ballot Monday, ruling that the council held an illegal meeting Aug. 8 -- excluding the public and press -- to secretly discuss their future votes in favor of the bill.

City Comptroller Joan M. Pratt said yesterday that she hasn't decided how she would vote on the reform proposal. But she added that she is concerned that it could lead to less minority representation on the council, even if it saves money.

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