Experts contend districting plan hurts black vote


Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's plan to redraw Baltimore City Council districts likely would be overturned in court because it unfairly dilutes black voting strength, a pair of legal experts told council members at a hearing yesterday.

Jeffrey M. Wice, an attorney for the Democratic State Legislative Leaders Association, said the mayor's plan is gravely flawed because it would concentrate black voters in a nearly black 4th District, while allowing whites to maintain smaller majorities in the 1st District and the 3rd District, and perhaps also the 6th District. Three council members are elected from each of the city's six districts.

"The mayor's plan is somewhat of a casebook example of violating the Voting Rights Act," said Mr. Wice, who briefs local Democratic Party officials on redistricting for the association, an arm of the national Democratic Party. "A plan like this has never been sustained anywhere in the country."

Mr. Schmoke could not be reached for comment last night.

On Jan. 28, Mr. Schmoke forwarded his redistricting plan to the council, which by law has 60 days to approve the plan, make changes or draft its own plan. If the council does nothing, the mayor's plan becomes law automatically.

The Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People responded by saying it would challenge the plan unless the council made amendments to boost the chances of electing more blacks.

Before yesterday's briefing, the seven blacks on the 19-member council had criticized the plan, saying it would preserve a white council majority in a city estimated to be more than 60 percent black.

Yesterday, however, white council members also voiced concern, saying a successful court challenge to the plan could invalidate the district lines and throw this year's municipal elections into disarray.

"I think the mayor's plan would end up in court," said Councilman Joseph J. DiBlasi, D-6th. "In the mayor's plan, we obviously have some districts that are packed that have to be unpacked."

Mr. Wice said that a 1982 amendment to the Voting Rights Act made it easier for civil rights organizations to overturn redistricting plans because they no longer have to prove that the plans intentionally discriminate against minorities. Plaintiffs only have to prove that the effect of the plan is discriminatory to have overturned, he said.

Under city law, the council map must be redrawn every 10 years based on the latest U.S. Census figures to ensure equal representation. But the census figures will not be ready until mid-March, meaning the council will have only a few days to review the plan with the figures.

The council would be better off changing the plan than allowing it to be challenged in court because courts often have allowed the challengers to draw their own plans, the legal advisers said.

Wayne R. Arden, a colleague of Mr. Wice's who also addressed the council, said courts look askance at plans that create districts with minority populations of more than 70 percent -- a process called "packing" -- when other districts have too few minority voters to elect a candidate of their choice.

"Judges see that as a red flag," Mr. Arden said.

Meanwhile, the council voted to allow the city to spend $550,000 to help broadcast council hearings and programs produced by city agencies, even though some council members wondered aloud whether anyone watches.

The money, requested by the Schmoke administration, would help replace equipment for the city's Cable and Communications office and wire city council hearing rooms to make it easier and cheaper to broadcast council meetings.

The spending appropriation easily passed in council even though one member, Anthony J. Ambridge, D-2nd, grumbled that the city might find better things to spend money on in a time of austerity measures.

The Board of Estimates is expected to grant final approval to the request tomorrow.

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