Council vote due on new map

Panel expected to approve mayor's redistricting plan

14 single-member districts

11 incumbents won't have to challenge colleagues

March 24, 2003|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

The City Council casts its final vote today on one of the most radical overhauls of Baltimore's political landscape in more than 30 years.

With Mayor Martin O'Malley needing 10 votes, a simple majority, to pass his plan for shrinking the size of the council, many political observers said the vote is just a formality.

O'Malley's plan, they said, was tacitly approved since he introduced it two months ago, a credit to his deft political skill at appeasing enough council members to assure easy passage.

"We tried our very best to draw a fair and equitable map," O'Malley said. "I served on the council, so perhaps that gave me a better sense of how to do it."

O'Malley said he was thankful that his plan to redraw the boundaries of the City Council districts avoided the rancor that saturated the 1991 redistricting process.

At that time, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's plan died on arrival. Weeks of intense debate ensued before the council approved a version intended to increase African-American representation on the council. By 1995, the plan did that when voters elected the first black majority in the council's history.

"What is stunning is that a minority African-American council was able to garner enough votes to change the council to majority African-American," said Carl Stokes, the councilman who led the council's plan in 1991. "It's 12 years later and you have an overwhelming African-American majority council that is sitting on their hands."

Many members are confident the mayor's plan will ensure that the council, which has a 68 percent black majority, will continue to reflect the city's 61 percent black population. Their major worry is learning the concerns of the new neighborhoods they will have to serve under the mayor's plan.

By law, the city redraws its council district boundaries every 10 years to accommodate population shifts. But voters in November added a twist by approving a referendum that shrinks the council from 19 members to 15.

The referendum abolished the six three-member districts that have existed since 1967 and replaced them with 14 single-member districts. The council president will continue to be elected at large.

The council tried to fight the change last year but failed. Union and community activists backing the referendum persuaded the courts to remove the council's rival plan from November's ballot.

Most council members said little debate has ensued because they believe the mayor's staff has drafted a plan that will withstand a legal challenge expected from the same community and union groups. With the state legislature still deciding whether to move September's primary to next year, many council members are more concerned with figuring out how to run alone in their single-member districts.

"We were a little bit gun-shy to tweak [O'Malley's map] because of the earlier court challenges," said Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, referring to the council's redistricting alternative that activists managed to have stripped from the ballot in court. "We just hope this map gets through so we can figure out what districts to run in and what our political futures will be."

The mayor achieved support by drawing the boundaries of 11 of the 14 new districts in areas where only one council member lives. Two council members reside in each of the three remaining districts, setting up the potential for colleagues to run against each other. Councilman Kwame Osayaba Abayomi in the current 6th District has said he will not run for re-election.

Several council members take issue with criticism that they stifled community input. The council held two public hearings to hear neighborhood concerns. The council is expected to amend O'Malley's map slightly by accommodating several requests from those communities.

Still, some members are upset that they did not draw a map, if only to prove they, not the mayor, are the architects of the council's future.

"Here is an opportunity for the council to exert some power," said Councilwoman Helen Holton. "The council could have said thanks to the mayor's plan but we want to ... draw our own map."

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