Reshaping the council

January 28, 2003

IN REVIEWING Mayor Martin O'Malley's redistricting proposal, the City Council should cast aside parochial considerations and approve the map with minimum tinkering.

Current council members will be trying to elbow each other out as they seek re-election to the downsized legislative body. But the council risks inviting a court challenge if it turns to a tricky redrawing of maps as a ruse to protect the incumbents.

Mayor O'Malley's draft map, submitted yesterday, attempts to strike a careful political balance. It proposes districts that would give an advantage to most of the 18 incumbents in the new 14-member body. The blueprint would likely result in the election of at least eight African-Americans because that is the number of proposed districts where black population exceeds 65 percent. Conversely, in only two districts would the white population exceed 50 percent.

The council now has 60 days to complete its review and make changes. The worst thing that could happen now would be for the jilted incumbents to turn the review process into an attempt to carve districts that better serve their self-interests. That could be disastrous. Not only would it invite a court challenge but it also would be a slap in the face to Baltimoreans who mandated the council reform.

In November, an overwhelming majority of voters ordered the bloated council downsized. In doing so, they authorized one of the most radical power shifts in Baltimore's history. The current six three-member districts will be replaced in the next election by 14 single-member districts, plus an at-large president. This revamp is likely to have unpredictable consequences.

For example, it could challenge the archaic system under which colleagues defer to the local council representative on decisions impacting that particular district. The relationship between the powerful mayor and the council also could change because the majority required for acting for or against the mayor would shift from 10 votes to eight. And no matter how that power shift plays out in the years to come, this map achieves at least one important objective: It keeps most neighborhoods of similar interests together.

The mayor's plan provides the foundation for a more effective council. That's why council members should welcome it - and pass it.

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