City Council set to shrink

19-member panel reduced to 15 after tonight's session

Seven incumbents departing

One of final business items is 12-year Comcast pact

December 06, 2004|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's 19-member City Council will meet tonight for the last time under a structure that dates back 82 years. A newly configured, smaller council will be sworn in Thursday and begin its work that night.

Between tonight's meeting and Thursday's swearing-in, seven incumbents will be packing up their offices and rejoining the ranks of voters who last sent them to City Hall in 1999.

"This is the only time in my memory where seven members are leaving," Councilman Robert W. Curran said. "Rarely do you have so many incumbents leaving."

Before they go, the departing members must help make a decision that the incoming council - and every council for the next 12 years - will live with: a cable franchise with Comcast.

The deal would require Comcast to pay a franchise fee that equals 5 percent of revenues from city subscribers; the fee generates nearly $4 million annually for the city's general fund.

Under the terms of the pending contract, Comcast agreed to charge each of its approximately 120,000 subscribers a $6 annual fee that would generate more than $700,000 a year for the capital costs of public access programming on cable Channel 5 and for shows produced by city government on cable Channel 21 and city schools on cable Channel 7.

Comcast would also provide $570,000 over the next 12 years for public access training, plus $430,000 over the next six years toward a summer youth employment program that could free up an equal amount for public access programming.

The youth training grant, however, might prove to be a last sticking point to the legislation. Council President Sheila Dixon said last week that she thought the city would release the same amount for public access programming.

Clarification sought

The measure could have passed the council last week, she said, but Dixon demanded clarification on the issue. A letter from the mayor's office intended to explain the funding stated that half of the grant would go to public access.

"The mayor doesn't want to give it all up to public access," Dixon said at the Board of Estimates meeting last week. "The council had asked that it all go to public access."

Public access advocates have been clamoring for funding that, at a minimum, equates to the city government's cable access channel, which is supported by state-of-the-art equipment, several staff members and an $800,000 annual budget that provides for steady programming of government shows. Public access has no funding, and producers must drop off tapes to the mayor's cable office, which airs them without a schedule.

Deputy Mayor Jeanne D. Hitchcock stated at the Board of Estimates work session that her council liaison would have to start lobbying council members to guarantee passage.

Lobbying needed

"Some council members are balking at the half-and-half" funding of the youth grant, Hitchcock said. "We need to do some lobbying."

But the mayor's office isn't too worried.

"We're confident that the bill will make it through the City Council," said Raquel Guillory, an O'Malley spokeswoman. "This is the best deal we could get."

Councilwoman Lois Garey, who is leaving the council after nearly 10 years, said she believes the measure will pass easily.

After tonight's meeting, Garey will be joined in her departure by six incumbent colleagues. Two others, like Garey, are not returning because they lost re-election bids in last year's Democratic primary. They are Melvin L. Stukes and Pamela V. Carter.

Three other council members are retiring: Kwame Osayaba Abayomi, John L. Cain and Lisa Joi Stancil. Councilwoman Catherine E. Pugh abandoned her council seat to run for council president, a race she lost to Dixon.

The new council

The new council will consist of the citywide position of president and 14 members each representing single districts, a redistricting approved by voters in 2002. The current council is made up of six three-member districts and a president, a configuration in place since 1922.

Garey believes the new council will immediately begin to grapple with questions over where to locate group homes and drug treatment centers. The Land Use and Planning Committee chairwoman said she will miss being a part of efforts to improve the city's zoning - not to mention an elected official's pension.

"I needed two years and three months more and I could have had a pension worth 30 percent of my salary," which is $48,000 for council members, Garey said. "I need a job."

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