Hundreds of Baltimoreans packed City Hall yesterday to lash out at plans to redraw the boundaries of the city's six City Council districts, and to remind their representatives just who is boss.
The redistricting proposal, which was given preliminary approval at an uproarious City Council meeting Monday night, would create five majority black districts and leave only one -- East Baltimore's first district -- with a white majority.
Those in favor of the plan, introduced by Councilman Carl Stokes D-4th, applauded it as a long overdue correction of what they said was the injustice of having a predominantly white city council representing a predominantly black city.
Opponents of the plan were angered that they were given little advance notice and said they were frustrated that their neighborhoods had been thrown into districts where they had few common interests.
But most everyone who spoke at a late afternoon public hearing on the proposal said they were disappointed that the City Council debate broke down along racial lines.
"I feel like this is becoming a black-white issue and I've always felt we should elect people if they were qualified," said Nancy Syntax, a housewife raising four children in Hamilton. "We are getting away from concerns as a whole city and I think the blacks are being just as bad as the whites were 20 years ago. And I think the whites are also being a little racist in their views and not wanting to give. "I am your boss, basically," she added. "Are you voting for the good of the entire city or are you voting for your job."
Among those who were angered by the lack of advance notice was Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, whose own redistricting plan was, at least temporarily, junked by the council on Monday. "Harlem Park and Coldspring Montebello woke up this morning and they're in new districts," the mayor said. "I am very concerned that that neighbors did not get a chance to comment before their voting rights were affected."
Mr. Schmoke made it clear that he is still studying the plan adopted by the council Monday night, but he said he had warned the Council prior to the vote that the Stokes proposal could stir racial anger and hostility. Two months ago, the mayor proposed his own redistricting plan, geared more to preserving the staus quo. His proposal called for few changes and would create three districts with a black majority.
The mayor was sharply criticized for not moving more boldly plan to create more majority black districts, and several City Council members said that if passed, feel certain the mayor's plan would likely lose a court challenge promised by the NAACP if it passes.
While the mayor said he was studying the Stokes plan and had not decided whether he would veto it if it is passed, angry members of Baltimore's General Assembly delegation and hundreds of Baltimore residents were more certain of their views.
"It takes a long time to train city council people. They are like shoes. They have to be broken in," said Lois Munchel, a travel agent from Northeast Baltimore. "Now you want to sell us new ones. But those we've had for a long time are comfortable. They know our sore spots and how not to rub us the wrong way."
The council's unexpected adoption of the Stokes plan on a 10-7 vote Monday has touched off the hottest political fight in the council in more than a decade. At stake are the districts from which council candidates will run in this year's municipal elections and the political futures of many incumbents will be on the line when the plan comes up for a final vote, possibly as early as tomorrow.
Some council members accused Council President Mary Pat Clarke of being the power behind the Stokes plan, in an effort to preserve her status as a citywide elected official. In other cities, courts have ordered single-member council districts with the council president to be chosen by the council and not the voters. Mrs. Clarke denied she was behind the plan, and said all council members jobs were threatened.
On the other hand, supporters of the Stokes plan said their slim majority would remain solid and that the final redistricting plan would open up more opportunities for black candidates to win seats on the council. Now, seven of the council's 19 members are black.
"I am amazed that the council had the guts and strength to come up with such a brave and controversial plan," said Delegate Curt Anderson, D-44th 44th. "I believe this plan is fair and equitable and gives some relief to people who need it."