The regional imperative


If the Almighty had drawn a plan, it would have gone to court.

-- Governor Schaefer GOVERNOR Schaefer's legislative redistricting plan went into effect automatically last month after the General Assembly declined to tamper with it.

The plan has two very controversial features: the assignment of a 15th senatorial district to the Baltimore region when population counts might justify only 14, and the creation of five new districts overlapping city and county.

Wasting not a moment, a Republican-led group, Marylanders for Fair Representation, filed suit to overturn the governor's plan, this following an unsuccessful attempt by the Democrat-dominated Baltimore County delegation to derail the proposal before it became law. Also citing fairness, the countians tried to donate the extra district to Montgomery and Howard, a gift politely declined.

What impels power-hungry pols of both parties to act so generously? What causes such an uncharacteristic burst of concern for evenhandedness? One need not be overly cynical to suspect hidden agendas. When Baltimore County Del. Richard Rynd intones, "Let's put the representatives where the population is," and Sen. Thomas Bromwell, a Democrat like Mr. Rynd, preaches, "Regionalism doesn't come from drawing lines; [it] comes from the heart," the cat has exited the bag.

Fear, not fairness, inspires these incumbents. Myopia, not philanthropy, drives them.

In their narrow view, shedding the extra Baltimore district would scuttle the joint district concept. But it is just this idea that holds promise of a turn from the stultifying parochialism that has so long paralyzed the county and caused its officials to shun working with the city.

A minimum beneficial result of the new map is that 15 delegates and five senators from the joint districts will be forced to consider overall constituent interests rather than the parochial interests of their former districts on one side of the line or the other. These legislators could, should, sit in on both city and county delegation meetings, thus increasing the promise of better communication and cooperation between the subdivisions. And in a major change of dynamics, black elected officials from the 42nd District in Northwest Baltimore will be involved in county deliberations for the first time.

But joint districting is but an initial step. More is required. Area officeholders must be made to realize that cooperation, not competition, is increasingly urgent. Urban problems, thoughtful citizens have long known, are no respecter of boundary lines. In that sense, at least, Senator Bromwell is right. But threatening another court action, as the Baltimore County delegation persists in doing, is the antithesis of what is needed.

Other sections of the nation are becoming less provincial, awakening to the benefits of regional approaches to the solution of urban ills. Places as geographically disparate as Denver, Louisville, Hartford, Kansas City and even Detroit are beginning to act rather than merely talk. Just next door, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (the District of Columbia and three adjacent counties) has implemented policies for the joint purchase of items, which saved $2 million last year. Hartford focuseses on joint economic development, as does Louisville, where regional cooperation extends into southern Indiana. Detroit works closely with nearby jurisdictions to improve regional employment.

If Baltimore is not to be left behind, regionalism must become more than an idea shunned by politicians and a pious hope for the rest of us. One vehicle intended to foster joint approaches, the Baltimore Regional Council of Governments, founders due to lack of leadership. Without a chairman since Dennis Rasmussen lost his November 1990 re-election bid as Baltimore County executive, the council must not be permitted to disappear, its federal funding lost. Instead, separate policy groups can be established to tackle employment and training programs, solid waste management, recycling, affordable housing, economic development, public safety and transportation. The council must be resuscitated. The first step is appointment of a strong chairman (or woman) to revitalize the organization and establish a new mission.

Neil Peirce, in his "Baltimore and Beyond" report last year, called for a civic league to build a widely based citizen forum. Such an advocacy group, which would know no boundaries in the region, is needed to stiffen incumbent backbones and generate the political willpower necessary to tackle the tough issues: tax equity, growth control, the vulnerability of a city which affects thousands who live beyond its borders. City financial woes now imperil such regional cultural treasures as the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Walters Art Gallery and others. Would not the lives of citizens of neighboring counties be diminished if, as now appears possible, the mayor is forced to slash or even eliminate city dollars?

The Greater Baltimore Committee has put it well: The economy of the state depends on the city. The times demand we listen, understand and act.

Carl Struever is president of Struever Bros., Eccles & Rouse, Baltimore developers. Milton Bates is a Baltimore writer.

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