In an extraordinary showdown that brought the City Council to an abrupt halt, six members walked off the floor last night to thwart last-minute maneuvering over Baltimore's trash-disposal plan.
Council President Mary Pat Clarke had thought she had the votes to ban incinerators from the 10-year solid-waste plan while the chief sponsor was at home recuperating from knee surgery.
But an attempt by her and 1st District Councilman John L. Cain to amend the plan failed after six of the 15 members who were present headed out the door.
Mrs. Clarke waited about 20 minutes for them to return before ending the meeting for lack of a quorum.
The surprising walkout, the first in about two decades that council observers could recall, drew sharp criticism from some of those who remained.
Others saw the standoff as the result of Mrs. Clarke's mayoral ambitions and her difficulties in controlling the fractious council.
"I think it's a disgrace," said 3rd District Councilman Wilbur E. "Bill" Cunningham, who worked for several years to develop the trash plan and was at home recovering from surgery.
"It just shows the phoniness of Mary Pat and how far she will go," Mr. Cunningham said.
Mrs. Clarke defended her actions and promptly called for another meeting for 9 this morning. She vowed to call the council to sessions every day until 10 of the 19 members show up, the necessary number to vote on amending the waste plan.
"Hey, you snooze, you lose," she said after the meeting.
"Until we put to rest the specter of increasing incineration, we cannot attract large-scale recycling manufacturers to Baltimore. If you see a 10-year solid-waste plan that says at a minimum we would consider three incinerators, then we are saying that the door's open to incineration."
A week ago, Mrs. Clarke failed to muster enough votes to remove three references to incinerators from the trash plan.
Last night, Mrs. Clarke and her supporters saw another chance because Mr. Cunningham was absent, as were three other council members who had helped quash the previous amendment.
Third District Councilman Martin E. "Mike" Curran also sized up the situation and tried to delay the final vote. But the postponement failed in a 7-7 tie.
Fourth District Councilwoman Agnes Welch had already left.
A flushed Mr. Curran complained that "councilmanic courtesy is gone" and quit the chamber.
The other four council members who walked off the floor were Sheila Dixon from the 4th District, Melvin L. Stukes and the Rev. Norman A. Handy Sr. from the 6th District and Iris G. Reeves from the 5th District.
Several of those who stayed said they were stunned by the walkout. First District Councilman Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr. said, "That's wrong. They can't handle the heat."
"I think it was an absolute embarrassment," said 2nd District Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge, who had supported a week's delay of the final vote on the trash plan.
"That's crazy. To walk out to avoid a vote is not the way you deal with things."
Bernard F. "Buzz" Murphy, head of legislative reference since 1978, said the walkout was the first in his tenure.
The delegation representing East Baltimore's 1st District supported deleting references to incinerators because they fear it paves the way for a new plant at the site of the polluting Pulaski Highway plant.
Eight months ago, the council effectively halted an attempt by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to fast-track lifting the city's five-year moratorium on incinerator construction. The chief beneficiary would have been construction magnate Willard Hackerman, who wants to replace his Pulaski Highway incinerator with a $300 million plant.
In September, Mr. Schmoke had a change of heart over lifting the moratorium after several counties made plans to ship their trash to landfills outside Maryland. He called for studying incineration with the city's overall trash strategy.
The long-range waste disposal plan that was crafted by Mr. Cunningham with the help of environmentalists and recycling TC advocates mentions incineration as one option for the future. It states that "consideration will be given to the following scenarios as a minimum" and lists three -- expanding the Baltimore RESCO incinerator, building a new waste-to-energy plant at the site of the Pulaski Highway incinerator, and constructing a third incinerator in the region.
"This could come back at any time to haunt us," Mr. Cain said.
But Mr. Cunningham, who chairs the council's health and environment committee, said it was "absurd" to delete any mention of incineration in a long-range trash plan.