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Reform Group Takes a Swing at the City Council

By Molly Rath | Posted 12/5/2001

Six months ago, Baltimore's latest grass-roots, community-based movement was born, fueled by indignance over Mayor Martin O'Malley's decision, in the name of tightening the budget, to cut city programs and privatize jobs. The Committee to Save Baltimore Neighborhoods was a cross-section of community and labor activists who preached the interests of low-income people and threatened political change (The Nose, June 13). Hizzoner was too cozy with downtown business, they charged, and the City Council was abdicating its mayoral-watchdog role by endorsing budget initiatives that favored white-collar folks over blue. If that continued, they warned, O'Malley and his legislative counterparts would pay come election time in 2004.

City politicos have seen reformist zeal flare up before in this town, and they've seen it fade just as quickly. But what began this past spring with a single community organization and three unions has grown into a coalition of 11 different groups, spanning hotel and restaurant workers, fire-department employees, school administrators, religious leaders, civil-rights activists, and local Green Party members. It has scrapped its earlier name for the weightier-sounding Communities and Labor United for Baltimore (CLUB). And, frustrated by the City Council's failure to fight mayoral handouts to CitiFinancial--a major Baltimore employer, but also an accused predatory lender--it is training its collective guns at a new target: the council itself.

If CLUB collects 10,000 valid signatures of registered Baltimore voters in the next six months, the city's ballots in the 2002 elections will include a proposal to eliminate four of the 19 seats on the city's legislature. The petition calls for breaking the current six three-member districts into 14 single-member districts (plus the council president, who is elected citywide) by the 2004 election. The League of Women Voters circulated a similar petition a year ago but failed to make the 2000 ballot. With a larger, more diverse contingent working on the campaign this time, CLUB leaders think they have a better shot, and they adamantly maintain that win or lose, they'll maintain the staying power that has eluded other local grass-roots coalitions.

"This isn't a conglomerate of block groups," says Mitch Klein, an organizer with CLUB participant ACORN (the Association of Communities Organized for Reform Now). "It's a conglomerate of the strongest organizations of low- to moderate-income people in the city. Our groups of people actually have like issues; this is not in response to an election." He is referring to the Neighborhood Congress, a citywide coalition of community associations that rapidly rose to prominence during the 1999 mayoral campaign and fell part afterward, due in part to competing internal interests. "We're trying to build a progressive movement for change," Klein continues. "It's a coalition about principles. We've met every Tuesday for [nearly] a year, and from that we realized that all of our groups are too weak to respond alone to what the mayor was doing to the city--in terms of privatization, in terms of CitiFinancial."

The petition comes after months of fruitless efforts by CLUB to derail $4 million worth of financial incentives that O'Malley extended to CitiFinancial to keep it from moving its offices out of the city. Earlier this year, the administration gave CitiFinancial--a mortgage arm of New York-based Citigroup that sells high-risk, high-cost sub-prime loans--a $1 million loan to expand its offices at 300 St. Paul Place. Now City Hall proposes to allot $3 million in state grant money for a parking garage, to be used primarily by CitiFinancial employees.

CLUB opposed both incentives, arguing that CitiFinancial is unfit to receive public money. The company has been implicated in a federal lawsuit for the predatory lending practices of Associates First Capital Corp., which it acquired last year. ACORN's national leadership accuses CitiFinancial itself of discriminatory lending practices in Baltimore. According to an ACORN analysis cited in a letter the organization sent to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in July, residents of minority neighborhoods received 40 percent of high-priced refinancing loans originated by CitiFinancial in Baltimore, compared to only 2.7 percent of more conventional loans from Citigroup's prime lenders.

Both the mayor's offerings to CitiFinancial required approval from the City Council, and in both cases the council obliged. In the case of the parking garage, though, some technicalities in the language of the bill have held it up, mandating a new vote this month and raising the slim possibility that on this one CLUB could prevail. CLUB members contend the council's approval of the CitiFinancial aid and O'Malley's budget cuts show that members are deaf to constituent needs, especially when those needs contradict the mayor's wishes.

Part of the problem, per CLUB, is the council's configuration. At a Nov. 28 press conference outside City Hall, they decried the six-district, 18-member structure, claiming it breeds council members who are insulated from voters and more responsive to business interests. Fourteen members representing smaller individual districts, CLUB contends, would have to focus more closely on constituent concerns, and face greater political peril if they don't.

"We feel that the current system is broken and unaccountable to the interests of working people," said Nick Weiner, senior research analyst with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union Local 7. "We want to bring families' voices to the table in city politics, so that it's just not the largest contributors that get to decide what the city's policies are. This petition will create a friendlier political environment."

The slimmed-down council will also create more equitable representation, according to Glen Middleton, president of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 44, which represents 5,000 city workers. "Redistricting the city into single-member districts would address regional inequities based on demographics and voter registration patterns," Middleton said, noting that Baltimore's suburban neighbors, and the U.S. House of Representatives, use the single-member model. "We are calling upon the citizens of Baltimore to sign this petition and bring democracy back to Baltimore."

Waxing wroth about council inefficiency, with a TV camera in tow, the CLUB members left their City Hall perch and marched across the street to file a petition request with the Baltimore City Board of Elections. The next step is to collect signatures and raise money to promote the council-reduction campaign. Then comes the real challenge: getting people to the polls next November.

In the meantime, CLUB leaders are hoping the petition drive raises their profile and builds support for an increasingly broad agenda. "We realize that it's not just enough to organize workers and get better wages and working conditions," Weiner says. "We realize that there are a lot of other issues, [such as] housing and crime, that affect our workers. We want an alternative vision for what economic development should be in the city."

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