The League of Women Voters in Baltimore wants a November voter referendum that would cut the size of the City Council by half, creating nine single-member districts.
Two similar drives to establish 18 single-member districts failed in 1984 and most recently in 1991, when the issue lost by 8,000 votes. But Millie Tyssowski, president of the civic group that is organizing the drive to obtain 10,000 signatures by August, says the time is ripe.
Six three-member council districts have existed since 1967, despite the city population dropping by 250,000 residents. Several City Council members welcome a plan to restructure the size of the panel but question whether creating nine single-member districts is the best way to do it. Others want to wait until after the 2000 Census to determine the best way to break up the body.
"I don't see any support for it on the council," Southeast Baltimore Councilman John L. Cain said of the league proposal. "Who's going to vote to put themselves out of a job? Nobody on this body."
Several council members suggested that creating single-member districts would impair constituent services. Each of the six council districts represents 108,000 residents or 36,000 constituents per council member. If broken into nine single-member districts, each district would be represent 72,000 residents.
"One member gets sick, and they're out for an extensive time -- do the constituents get service?" asked Southwest Baltimore Councilman Melvin L. Stukes.
Single-member city districts would resemble the elected bodies of the state's three largest counties: Montgomery, Prince George's and Baltimore County. Montgomery and Prince George's have nine council members each while Baltimore County, which has a population larger than the city's by almost 100,000 people, operates with seven members.
Baltimore City Council members, however, note that the city houses half of the state's poor and a large portion of its senior citizens as reasons for the need of multiple-member districts. Northwest City Councilwoman Helen Holton has proposed restructuring the council but opposes single-member districts.
"The city is not the size it used to be, but I don't think that nine is the right number," Holton said. "I don't know what the right number is."
But Tyssowski and proponents calling themselves the Better Baltimore Coalition say single-member council slots would make elected city officials more accountable to constituents. The nonpartisan group includes West Gate Neighborhood Association and Homeland Mews Community Association.
During his administration, former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke established nine neighborhood service centers to coincide with the city's nine police districts.
The nine-district council would save the cash-strapped city at least $1 million in salaries and staff expenses, Tyssowski said. In December, council members voted themselves a $11,000 pay raise to $48,000 per year, amounting to 30 percent.
Tyssowski is seeking help in the drive. Under city election rules, the league would need 10,000 voter signatures by Aug. 14. Election officials, however, recommend obtaining an additional 5,000 signatures to cover signers who are not registered voters.
Matthew Crenson, a Johns Hopkins University political science professor, said past council reduction efforts have failed because city residents appear to enjoy the option of contacting several district members.
"This has been kicking around for years and if you consider them as a lawmaking body, it might make sense," Crenson said. "But much of what the council does is community service."