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Clarke seeks more public input to fill vacancies on city council


City Council President Mary Pat Clarke has proposed a rule change that would require more public participation in filling council vacancies.

Clarke's rule change would mandate that, when a vacancy occurs, the remaining two members from that councilmanic district would hold within 30 days a public hearing at which applicants would be interviewed.

Under the proposed rule, the two incumbents would then have 30 days to recommend a successor to the council for a vote.

Baltimore is divided into six councilmanic districts, with three council members serving from each district.

Clarke's proposal, circulated to council members yesterday about 30 minutes before the regular council meeting, caught members off guard.

Some where angered by what they said would be an infringement on the internal affairs of each councilmanic district. They also said they would be put on the spot politically if they voted against the proposal. Municipal elections are next year.

Currently, the city charter requires the entire council to approve a nominee for a vacancy. For decades, the council has exercised councilmanic courtesy and rubber-stamped the nominee selected by the remaining members of the district delegation.

The process used to select the nominee was left up to the district delegation.

There has been growing criticism of the existing process over the past eight years by those who say the dominant political clubs in a district dictate who fills a vacancy.

It came to a head last February when Councilmen Timothy D. Murphy and Joseph J. DiBlasi, both D-6th, appointed Edward L. Reisinger to fill the vacancy created by the death of William J. Myers.

There was a perception that Reisinger already had been promised the position by leaders of the Stonewall Democratic Club, to which both Murphy and DiBlasi belong.

Although the council approved Reisinger, black members criticized the process, which they said prevented blacks from being considered for the vacancy. The 6th District has about a 40 percent black population.

Councilwoman Sheila Dixon, D-4th, said she supports Clarke's proposal because "it opens up the process, in this situation, to the community to have a say on who will represent them."

Dixon was one of those who questioned the process that led to Reisinger's appointment. Reisinger has since won high praise from his colleagues for his work in the council.

In reacting to Clarke's proposal, Councilman Martin E. "Mike" Curran, D-3rd, simply said, "If something isn't broke, don't fix it."

Curran pointed out that eight current members of the 19-member council, including himself, got their seats when vacancies occurred, and he said the process has worked out fine.

"This proposal would make it difficult for members of a delegation to make a decision on who to select to fill a vacancy and, at the same time, keep political peace in the district," said Councilman John A. Schaefer, D-1st.

Another council member said that to vote against the proposal with elections looming next year could be political suicide and said Clarke has put them in an untenable situation.

Clarke said that was not her intent.

"I didn't mean to spot any council member or the council as a whole," she said. "In fact, with the elections coming up, I felt it was timely to put into place a more open process, knowing that when a vacancy occurs right before an election, filling it can become even more controversial."

Clarke said her action was prompted by the possibility that Murphy, who has applied for a District Court vacancy, could be appointed to the bench after the first of the year.

Clarke said her proposal reflected the least public participation that was suggested during meetings of the council's rules committee last spring following Reisinger's appointment.

Acknowledging that her proposal had generated opposition, Clarke said she may have misinterpreted the consensus of the council on the issue.

"But I've invited those who object to suggest amendments to my proposal that would answer their concerns but still maintain a public process," Clarke said.

Clarke said she still intends to introduce the proposal at a special Thursday night council meeting so that it can be voted on at the regular meeting next Monday, after which the council is to recess until mid-January.

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