Redistricting challenge

January 03, 2003

MAYOR MARTIN O'MALLEY'S most challenging task this year is to draw new City Council districts. Voters mandated this reapportionment in November when they approved a ballot question that replaced the six three-member council districts with 14 single-member ones.

This downsizing from 18 to 14 members - plus a president elected citywide - is the most sweeping reorganization since 1922, when the council's current setup was introduced. The redrawing has the potential to trigger a flurry of other changes as well - from the way members deal with the powerful mayor to their handling of constituency concerns, because colleagues can no longer cover for a nonperforming member.

The mayor must submit new district maps to the City Council by late January; the council will then have 60 days to modify them and approve the final borders.

In this computerized age, redistricting is far easier than before. Even hobbyists are getting into the game. One is Fred Shoken, whose redistricting proposal is on view at www.boltonhill.org/mria/initiatives/redi strict/RedistrictPlan.htm. Working from city planning department maps, he has attempted to make sure that neighborhoods with similar interests are not split too badly.

This method has a fatal flaw. Council districts must be based on wards and precincts, which Mr. Shoken did not consider. By contrast, Union Square resident Michael Lester uses those as the foundation of his proposal, but unfortunately his maps are not available on any Web site.

The two proposals make the same point: They underscore the legitimate concern that neighborhood lines and community coalitions be respected as much as possible.

In reality, however, all stages of the redrawing are subject to politicking, and this gets tricky very quickly. Already, there have been some attempts at horse-trading among current council members, who want to protect their turfs and self-interests. But with many incumbents living close together in their districts, all cannot be accommodated - and they shouldn't be.

When dissatisfied voters ordered the council overhauled in the November referendum, they rebelled against leadership that had ignored earlier calls for council reform. If those same political leaders now try to compromise the reapportionment exercise, they are sure to invite the voters' ire in the next elections, and deservedly so.

There is an even more pressing argument for redistricting without any monkey business: The Democratic power-brokers' brazen attempt to gerrymander Maryland's legislative districts last year. Politically aggrieved parties challenged that travesty, and in the end, state judges ended up drawing the districts amid general grumbling.

The mayor and the City Council risk similar court intervention if they draw overly crafty jurisdictions in order to pander to this or that special interest. That's why they ought to draw districts that honor natural neighborhood borders as much as ward and precinct lines will allow.

Redistricting is no doubt going to unleash all kinds of political passions, but sticking to basic requirements and natural boundaries would be the city's best defense in case of court challenges - and in the best interest of the city's residents, as well.

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