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The Nose

Keeping Their Own Council

Posted 4/11/2001

Maybe it should stay the same. After seven months of mulling downsizing options for the City Council, that's about all a panel formed in September by council President Sheila Dixon came up with. While the Commission on City Council Representation's report, made public April 2, offers three possible council configurations, the overall timbre of the document is hardly status quo-shattering.

Dixon empaneled the commission in September, spurred by a growing, League of Women Voters-led call to reduce the 19-member council, which is more than double the size of neighboring counties' legislative bodies. (The league unsuccessfully sought to put a council-shrinking referendum question on last year's election ballot.) With Baltimore's population plummeting and its budget woes growing, many both inside and outside government questioned whether the city needed--or could afford--so many council members. Millie Tyssowski, president of the Baltimore League of Women Voters, contended during last year's referendum drive that shaving the council to 10 seats would save the $1.2 million a year.

Despite Tyssowski's presence on the commission (which was chaired by former City Council member and mayoral candidate Carl Stokes), its report makes only passing mention of the potential impact on the council's $3.5 million annual budget and offers no projections of possible savings. (This when the city has announced layoffs and school and library closings and is scaling back its popular recycling program.) While the report raises some interesting ideas--such as increasing the body's weak budget powers--it does little to make a compelling case for a 10- or 15-member council, its own proposed alternatives. Ridiculously, the commission hails as its "first alternative" a council of . . . 19 members.

Self-preservation being, we're given to understand, a component of politics, council members' reaction to the document is hardly surprising. Catherine Pugh (D-4th District) says that, even with 19 council members, a typical workday stretches from fielding early-morning constituent calls to attending late-night committee hearings. "You can't say no to community groups and their meetings," she says. "If there are fewer of us, how will we get the work done?" Like many of her colleagues, Pugh contends that any savings resulting from having fewer council members would be offset by each member having to hire more underlings to handle constituent matters and basic legislative legwork. "When you pare down the council, you'll have to pump up the support staff," she says.

That doesn't bode well for the prospects of trimming the City Council by even four seats, seeing as how such a change would require changing the City Charter, a process that can only be set in motion by the City Council. "It takes an ordinance to make a [charter] change, and I doubt that any city councilperson will introduce one," Dixon says. Nor does the council president plan to use her bully pulpit to promote debate on the idea. "I haven't taken a position" on council reduction, Dixon says. "I don't want to make a bunch of enemies."

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