Wandering through redistricting

Our view: Redistricting the City Council has been confusing for public and city lawyers

April 07, 2011

If some city residents have felt a little lost recently, wondering who represents them on the City Council, they were not alone. The Baltimore City Law Department has been befogged as well.

Late in March, that office issued an opinion saying that the recently redrawn map defining City Council districts would go into effect April 1. This meant, in effect, that some 72,000 city residents who were represented by one council member on Thursday, March 31, were suddenly represented by another on Friday, April 1 — April Fool's Day.

Change of representation happens in political life, but most of the time it is caused by an election.

This week, the law department reversed itself, saying its original interpretation was wrong and that the newly redrawn council districts do not take effect until December, after elections this fall.

On the streets of Baltimore, this admission is known as a "my bad." While it is embarrassing to the law department, at least the city's lawyers ended up getting the ruling right.

At issue was the interpretation of an ambiguous provision in the City Charter dealing with redistricting. The initial call, made by assistant city solicitor Victor K. Tervala, was that the City Charter did not permit splitting a redistricting plan's enactment into two starting dates, one for representation, and one for election. The state constitution and some local charters make this explicit, but the city's charter does not. Moreover, there's a confusion provision added in 1994 stating that a council member cannot be removed from office simply because of a shift in district lines, which would seem to suggest the possibility that the maps could go into effect before the election. But the second, overriding opinion, issued two weeks later by City Solicitor George Nilson, turned that on its head, and rightly so.

In addition to making sense — a standard that not all rulings about political redistricting have met — Mr. Nilson's opinion also follows tradition.

If the initial interpretation had been allowed to stand, it would have given some incumbent council members a decided advantage in the coming fall City Council elections. For example, the councilman whose district under the new maps suddenly included a section of Federal Hill could act for several months as the neighborhood's representative, thus increasing the advantages of incumbency even though residents of the redistricted neighborhood had never seen his name on their ballots. That won't happen now.

Redistricting law can be tortuous. Mr. Nilson noted in his opinion that while the law department is dedicated to getting it right the first time, often there is no clear-cut answer. It was certainly better for him to have admitted getting it wrong than to have persisted in a reading of the law that made no sense. He recommended that a charter amendment be adopted that would clear up the ambiguity around this issue. That seems like a good idea, one that would do away with confusion about redistricting and avoid a future flawed "April Fool's" ruling.

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