Voters OK reshaping of City Council

Outside a polling place at the Towanda Recreation Center in Baltimore, community activist Willie Ray hands campaign literature for Question P allowing single-member City Council districts to Cornell and Shirley Paige as their grandson, Dalijah Pope, watches them.
Outside a polling place at the Towanda Recreation Center in Baltimore, community activist Willie Ray hands campaign literature for Question P allowing single-member City Council districts to Cornell and Shirley Paige as their grandson, Dalijah Pope, watches them. (Sun photo by Jed Kirschbaum)
Baltimoreans voted overwhelmingly to reshape the City Council yesterday, handing a final defeat to a group of city leaders who had been outmaneuvered by a scrappy community-labor coalition and stymied by the state's highest court.

"Baltimore has clearly chosen that we should move forward," said Sultan Shakir, an activist with the community group ACORN, which backed ballot Question P.

The measure, which passed by a nearly 2-1 margin, cuts four seats from the 19-member council and does away with multimember districts. The plan was intended to save money, make it easier for less-established candidates to get elected and increase accountability on the council.

Critics warned that it would fracture the city into small, self-interested districts and reduce minority representation.

"No one ever wants to lose, particularly when they feel very passionate about a system that works," said Council President Sheila Dixon, who opposed the plan. "The people looking from the outside sometimes don't have a real understanding about what goes on and how this could be a detriment to moving the city forward."

Among voters who favored Question P was Dorothy Ciofani, 67, a lifelong Canton resident who works at a gas station in the neighborhood. "I feel like there are too many of them, and what do they do?" she said.

But Frances Jamison, 70, of West Baltimore said shrinking the council wasn't something a city on the rebound should do.

"I'm worried about things building up, not tearing down," she said.

Placed on the ballot by a coalition of community activists and labor unions, Question P faced fierce opposition from council members, whose first plan to foil the measure fell apart because they hatched it at a closed-door session that apparently violated the state's Open Meetings Act.

Question P creates 14 council districts of one member each, replacing the current system of six, three-member districts. The council president will continue to be elected citywide under the new arrangement, which takes effect for the 2004 election. The plan represents the first change to the council structure since 1967, when membership was cut from 21 to 19.

The council lined up some high-profile political support for the anti-P campaign, including Mayor Martin O'Malley and Del. Howard P. Rawlings, one of Maryland's most powerful politicians and the father of the council's vice president.

But the pro-P coalition had strong organizational and financial support that included ACORN and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 44.

Union backing - AFSCME leaders openly called it payback for privatization of about 260 city jobs in the past two years - apparently gave the measure a big boost. Jeffrey Jones, 30, a city sewer worker, voted for Question P, which he learned about at AFSCME meetings. So did his wife, Danuelle. "The people need to be heard," he said.

The coalition spent months collecting signatures to get the question on the ballot in what many observers assumed would be a futile effort. The League of Women Voters, which was part of the effort, had tried to put a referendum for a 10-member council on the ballot two years ago, but fell short of the required 10,000 petition signatures. There was more eye-rolling than concern among council members in May, when the coalition dispatched a summer intern dressed in a leotard, mask and cape to deliver the first pile of petitions to City Hall.

But by late July, city elections officials confirmed that the group had cleared the 10,000-signature hurdle. The council scrambled to put a rival measure on the ballot that also would have cut four seats but retain multimember districts.

Council members said they wanted to give voters a choice. Critics accused them of trying to sabotage the coalition plan and save their $48,000-a-year part-time jobs, since the two measures would have appeared as separate ballot questions and likely would have canceled each other out if both passed.

In late September, in response to a lawsuit filed by the coalition, the state Court of Appeals stripped the council's plan from the ballot because Dixon had rallied support for it at the closed-door council meeting, for which no public notice was given.

In city legislative races, incumbent Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, a Democrat, beat Republican Gordon T. Gates in District 45. In that district's race for delegate, incumbents Talmadge Branch, Clarence Davis and Hattie N. Harrison defeated Republican Roxcelanna Nia Redmond.

In the 44th, Democrats Ruth M. Kirk, Jeffrey A. Paige and Keith E. Haynes won over write-in candidate Sarah Matthews and Republicans Arthur W. Cuffie Jr. and James E. Peters Jr. Democrat Verna L. Jones was unopposed for Senate.

Incumbent Dels. Peter A. Hammen, Carolyn Krysiak and Brian K. McHale defeated Republican L. Patrick Dail in the 46th. Incumbent Sen. George W. Della Jr. was unopposed.

In District 43, Democrats Maggie McIntosh, Ann Marie Doory and Curt Anderson beat the Rev. John A. Heath, a Republican. Incumbent Sen. Joan Carter Conway was unopposed.

There were no contested races in the 40th, where Sen. Ralph M. Hughes and Dels. Howard P. Rawlings, Salima Siler Marriott and Tony E. Fulton were re-elected. In the 41st, newcomer Jill P. Carter and incumbents Nathaniel T. Oaks and Samuel I. Rosenberg were unopposed for delegate. Lisa A. Gladden was unopposed for Senate.

State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, who won a bitter three-way Democratic primary race, faced no challengers yesterday. Also unopposed were Circuit Judges Shirley M. Watts, Clifton J. Gordy Jr., Lynn K. Stewart, John M. Glynn and John Philip Miller; Sheriff John W. Anderson; Circuit Court Clerk Frank M. Conaway; and his wife, Register of Wills Mary W. Conaway.

In the race for Orphans' Court judge, Democrats Joyce M. Baylor-Thompson, Karen Friedman and Lewyn Scott Garrett defeated Republican Victor Clark Jr. City voters also voted to retain Chief Judge Robert M. Bell of the Court of Appeals and Judge Arrie W. Davis of the Court of Special Appeals.

Voters approved $120 million in city bond proposals for community and economic development projects. The biggest item, $43.5 million, will fund community development projects. About $32 million would go for schools.

Sun staff writer Allison Klein contributed to this article.

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