Controversy surrounds Question L Amendment's aim is 18 single districts


Donnell Sherrod, a resident of Rognel Heights on the western edge of Baltimore, thinks that for too long the voice of his community has been ignored at City Hall.

His neighborhood's opposition to the City Council's redistricting plan -- which shifted Rognel Heights from the 5th District to the 4th -- did not stop the council from passing the plan last spring. And with the election of the 4th District incumbents in the primary, Mr. Sherrod says his community is stuck with three City Council representatives who spend most of their time bickering with one another.

"Who can we really go to with our concerns or complaints?" Mr. Sherrod asks. "If we complain to one councilperson, they blame the other two. Meanwhile, our needs are not met."

But as the Nov. 5 general election approaches, he is pinning his hopes for change on Ballot Question L.

Question L is a proposed amendment to the City Charter that would change the way City Council members are elected by creating 18 single-member council districts. The current configuration of six districts with three council members each has existed since 1923.

The proposed change is backed by two groups in the city who feel their members have much to gain by making council districts smaller: The Baltimore Republican Party, which gathered over 15,000 signatures to get the question placed on the ballot, and the NAACP, which voted last week to organize an "all-out" campaign to win its adoption.

Leaders of both groups say that the plan would give their constituencies the opportunity to win more political power -- particularly the Republicans, who are outnumbered by Democrats by better than 9-to-1 in Baltimore and hold no major elected office.

"Republicans aren't the only ones who can't get elected," said David R. Blumberg, chairman of Baltimore City's Republican Party. "Neither can anyone who is not a member of some political machine or anyone who is not independently wealthy.

"Besides, Baltimore is the only subdivision in the state that does not have single-member districts and the only city of our size in the country that has this kind of system."

The Republicans and the NAACP say that they will campaign to win passage of Question L -- including mass mailings and media advertisements.

Mr. Sherrod says there are other benefits to the plan that don't involve race or political affiliation.

"The councilperson would have less territory to cover, so we would have a direct relationship with him," he said. "And he would be more accountable to us. If he didn't serve us well, then we could blame him directly and knock him out in the next election."

Most of the city's elected officials are opposed to the plan, saying that 18 single-member districts would make the council even more parochial than it is under the current system.

"No councilperson would represent a significant portion of the population," said City Council President Mary Pat Clarke. "The representatives would be coming to City Hall without the clout of a constituency.

"It would be harder to come to a consensus, and it would be easier to demagogue," she said. "We'd have people fighting for park benches instead of housing development."

Many elected officials say that they are not opposed to the concept of single-member districts, but they would prefer to have the city divided into fewer districts than proposed in Question L.

"I can't support this plan because 18 districts would be absurd," said state Sen. Julian L. Lapides, D-Baltimore. "The Republicans really missed the boat because I think they'd have had much more support if they had set up a plan with fewer districts."

City Councilman Joseph T. "Jody" Landers, D-3rd, said that a delegation of City Council representatives met with Republican leaders and asked them not to place Question L on the ballot until after recommendations are made by a Charter Revision task force early next year.

Mr. Landers was the sponsor of a bill that was passed last year to create the task force, whose recommendations would be subjected to voter approval in the 1992 elections.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said he wants to wait for those recommendations and therefore does not support Question L.

"At least the issue will have been studied," said the mayor's spokesman, Clinton R. Coleman Jr. "It will not have just been thrown out there. It is one that will have been given appropriate study."

With less than two months before the General Election on Nov. 5, there still have been no visible campaigns for or against Question L. The Republican Party sent out letters to all the unsuccessful candidates in the primary election. And neighborhood groups are beginning to discuss it at their meetings.

"I think there may be a protest vote in favor of it just to send a message to the Democrats that we are tired of them doing whatever they want with us," said Barbara L. Przybylski, president of the Belair-Edison Improvement Association in East Baltimore. "During redistricting, they played the numbers game, but they didn't give any consideration to the people that make up those numbers."

Joseph Church, president of the Franklin Square Homeowners Association, said he was elated when a black candidate won a Democratic nomination to the City Council in the primary. If Melvin Stukes' candidacy survives the general election, he will be the first black councilman to serve the 6th District and will give the council eight black members. Currently, seven of the 18 members are black.

However, Mr. Church thinks Question L could boost that number significantly. "There's no question in my mind I'll vote for it," he said. "If you map out the city with 18 districts, I'd say 60 percent of them are going to be black districts and with those numbers we could get 12 to 15 of the 18 seats.

"It's true that the Republicans would be able to have a shot in electing one or two people," he added. "But we'd be sharing power, and that's what it's all about.

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