Plan to cut seats from council is debated

Strong-mayor system at center of discussion

October 09, 2002|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Members of a group pushing to reshape Baltimore's City Council took on opponents of the plan in a spirited debate last night, just four weeks before voters decide whether to change the structure at City Hall for the first time in 35 years.

About 70 people, many of them dressed in bright orange "single member district" campaign shirts, flocked to Bread of Life at the Cathedral Church in Mount Vernon to hear promises and warnings about Question P on the Nov. 5 ballot.

"We're going to rumble," WOLB-AM talk-radio host and former state Sen. Larry Young said jokingly as the event he helped organize got under way.

The voters will decide on Question P - whether to cut four seats from the 19-member council and do away with the city's multimember council districts.

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

The plan before voters would create 14 districts with one member each, plus an at-large president.

If passed by voters, the plan would represent the first change to the council's structure since 1967, when membership was trimmed from 21 to 19.

Much of debate centered on how much - or how little - the council is empowered to do.

Those in favor of the plan blame the council for shuttered libraries and schools, predatory lending and the loss of city jobs.

Those opposed to the plan contend that the council has little power in those areas under Baltimore's strong-mayor form of government and that the plan would shrink its authority further.

"They would be steamrollered. They would be marginalized," said Peter Dolkart, a University of Baltimore law student and former director of legislative affairs for Council President Sheila Dixon.

Sultan Shakir, an activist with a community group backing the plan, said the reshaped council would be more accountable to residents and more willing to take steps to shore up its strength.

For example, the new council could pass a bill to limit the mayor's influence over the Board of Estimates, he said.

"The people of Baltimore City are suffering," Shakir said. "What is the City Council doing about that?"

The radio station and Baltimore Times were hosts of the debate, with Young and Anthony W. McCarthy, associate publisher of the newspaper, posing questions.

The program was moderated by Marvin "Doc" Cheatham, president of the city's board of elections, who said he was not there in his official capacity.

Four members of the coalition of community and labor groups that put the plan on the ballot debated City Councilman Melvin L. Stukes and two other opponents.

Arguing in favor of the plan were: Shakir, an organizer with the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN); Rose Taylor, co-chairwoman of Maryland ACORN; Glenard S. Middleton Sr., president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 44; and Millie Tyssowski of the Baltimore City League of Women Voters.

Siding with Stukes, a Southwest Baltimore Democrat, and Dolkart was Michael Johnson, a community activist who lives in Northwest Baltimore.

The coalition backing the plan contends that the measure would make it easier for less-established candidates to win council seats and save the cash-strapped city money.

Opponents say single-member districts would "Balkanize" the city, cater to parochial interests and make the council less racially diverse.

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