A coalition of community and labor groups seeking to reshape the City Council filed a lawsuit yesterday which aims to get a rival plan off the November ballot. The suit, filed in Circuit Court, contends that a council-backed plan should be stripped from the ballot because council members lined up support for it at an illegal closed-door meeting in August.
"The Open Meetings Act is particularly important when a public body such as the City Council is voting on a bill that affects their personal interests, not just the public's interests. And in this case, the size of the City Council certainly affects their personal interests since it could affect whether they hold a job," said Francis J. Collins, the coalition's attorney.
"They should have been bending over backward to be open and upfront about this instead of making decisions in back rooms," he said.
The coalition wants to shrink the 19-member council by four and create single-member districts. The council backs a plan that also cuts four seats, but creates two-member districts.
Council President Sheila Dixon, who called the meeting in question on Aug. 8, said the session was legal. She also said the meeting had no bearing on the legitimacy of the council's plan because members approved it in a properly advertised, open meeting on Aug. 12.
"Nobody took a vote [on Aug. 8], nobody asked you where you were on that," she said. "We voted in public session and everything. The bottom line is, this bill offers the public a chance to decide whether or not they support multi-member districts or single-member districts."
Councilman Robert W. Curran, who said the Aug. 8 meeting met the "letter of the law," agreed.
"There was no action taken at that meeting," Curran said.
The coalition behind the suit, Community and Labor United for Baltimore (CLUB), includes the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), League of Women Voters and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
CLUB members argue that their plan would make members more accountable to constituents than under the current three-member district system. They also note the measure would save the city money. Council members make $48,000 a year.
Council members oppose the plan. Many say shrinking its size would make it harder to provide good service to constituents. Some also say single-member districts would "Balkanize" the city and cater to parochial interests.
CLUB contends that the council put its plan on the ballot to confuse voters and to thwart the coalition's efforts. The plans will appear as separate ballot questions and will cancel each other out if both pass, according to legal opinions from the secretary of state and city solicitor.
After CLUB collected more than 10,000 signatures to get its plan on the Nov. 5 ballot, Dixon called the Aug. 8 meeting at City Hall to rally support for one of several council-backed alternatives.
The majority of the meeting was closed to the public on the grounds that there was no quorum. Two reporters and an ACORN activist walked in after a 10th member arrived, but three members promptly left, ending the quorum and forcing the observers out.
The council agreed at the meeting to vote on four resizing bills at its next regular session, participants said afterward.
On Aug. 12, the council voted to put two bills on the ballot. Mayor Martin O'Malley vetoed one of them later. The surviving bill was the submitted council plan. The coalition's lawsuit argues that the ballot question resulting from the Aug. 12 vote is invalid because the council had decided to take that course of action at the closed Aug. 8 session.
The suit also asks the Circuit Court to order the city and state elections boards to remove the question from the ballot. The elections boards are named as defendants in the suit, as are the council and O'Malley.
William R. Varga, an assistant attorney general, believes the Aug. 8 meeting violated the Open Meetings Act because no public notice was given.
But Varga, who also represents the city elections board, said a judge might not find that reason enough to remove the question from the ballot.
"When there's a willful violation of the Open Meetings Act by a public body, the courts have a lot of discretion in this ... [but] if the final action was taken at a legitimate public meeting, the judge could say, 'Worst-case scenario, you're letting the people decide,'" he said.