A petition for a ballot measure to reduce the size of the Baltimore City Council from 14 districts to eight has collected more than 25,000 signatures, far exceeding the number needed for the question to go to voters in November’s general election.

The measure is backed by the People for Elected Accountability and Civic Engagement, a committee with ties to the conservative-leaning Sinclair Broadcast Group, which two years ago successfully funded a charter amendment imposing term limits on elected officials in City Hall.

PEACE’s efforts have been largely bankrolled by David Smith, the Baltimore County businessman and Sinclair executive chairman, who last year gave $340,000 to the ballot committee. Headquartered in Hunt Valley, Sinclair operates almost 200 television stations across the country and is known for its conservative leanings. The company’s flagship station, WBFF Fox45, airs a steady rhythm of televised spots against Baltimore incumbent Democratic leadership and the city’s school system, winning recognition for its coverage of the latter.

Last week, Smith personally purchased The Baltimore Sun and, in a tense Tuesday meeting, told staffers that he hopes to see the coverage from the 186-year-old paper look more like that of his Fox45.

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Mitchell Schmale, a spokesperson for PEACE and for Smith, said Thursday that his group turned in 25,217 signatures last month to the city Board of Elections in support of the charter amendment to reduce the City Council to eight districts. Petitions for ballot measures require 10,000 signatures to appear on the ballot, and committees typically try to submit thousands of extra signatures because elections officials often disqualify many.

Signatures to get charter amendments on this year’s ballot aren’t due until the summer, and the Board of Elections has not yet confirmed whether PEACE’s signatures meet the threshold of 10,000.

Measures that do make it to the ballot have historically received overwhelming support from Baltimore voters, making them in recent years a potent tool for organizers with money and influence to get laws passed without going through leadership in City Hall. Voters approved seven different ballot measures in 2022, with the least popular proposal — the PEACE-backed measure to impose term limits on elected officials — still passing with 71% of the vote.

Language submitted by PEACE to the Baltimore City Board of Elections argues that shrinking the number of City Council districts down to eight would save “significant tax dollars and resources” for the city while still providing adequate representation. The language also states that eight districts more closely aligns the Baltimore City structure with that of other Maryland jurisdictions with comparable population sizes — all reasons Schmale cited as Smith’s motivations for backing the measure.

Smith addressed his term limits measure during his almost three-hour meeting with Sun staff members on Tuesday, referring to the effort as a “test.”

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“As a test, because I was curious,” Smith said he funded the ballot initiative “to see if term limits in Baltimore City government would fly,” according to multiple recordings of the meeting reviewed by The Baltimore Banner. The Sinclair exec pointed to the support of the term limits measure as “an indictment of what people think of government,” not just in Baltimore City, but “everywhere.”

Campaign finance reports filed this week show Smith has also pumped $100,000 into a super PAC supporting former Mayor Sheila Dixon to unseat Mayor Brandon Scott in May’s Democratic primary election.

In addition to the term limits measure, PEACE circulated a charter amendment in 2022 that would have established recall elections to remove leaders from office, garnering just over 11,000 signatures but missing the cutoff after elections officials tossed some out. The committee received approval this year to circulate a similar recall measure again, but Schmale said they stopped pursuing it.

If the charter amendment shrinking City Council were approved, the measure language states, the mayor must draft a new district map for the city in time for the next municipal election. Both the charter amendment and redistricting plan would take effect for the 2028 Baltimore City elections.

Baltimore has had a 14-district council for more than two decades and took its current shape after 2002 ballot measure asked residents whether they wanted to see the body’s membership reduced from 19. That charter amendment saw fierce opposition from many establishment politicians, including then-Mayor Martin O’Malley and then-City Council President Sheila Dixon, but landed on the ballot after a coalition of activist and labor groups collected the requisite signatures from residents.

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The PEACE measure wasn’t the only effort to reform the structure of the City Council that got approval to collect signatures this year.

Councilman Ryan Dorsey also received a green light to collect signatures for a measure that would have switched from 14 council districts to 15, with a council president elected by members of the legislative body. Under the current system, the council president is selected in a citywide election, rather than by fellow council members.

Dorsey said Thursday that he abandoned the effort because he didn’t have the bandwidth the collect the necessary signatures. But the Northeast Baltimore councilman said PEACE’s proposal to shrink the size of the elected body is “not rooted in any logic” other than the “conservative ideology that no government is good government.”

Still, Dorsey argued that the approach may make some business sense to a “right-wing crazy” like David Smith and the people who run Fox45.

“I think that Sinclair is intent on making Baltimore City completely dysfunctional” to ensure more content for their news coverage, Dorsey said.

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This article has been updated to clarify in the headline that the ballot measure is funded by David Smith, chairman of Sinclair, Inc., and not the company itself.

Adam Willis covers city government for The Banner, including the impacts of the large COVID-19 stimulus package that Baltimore received from the federal government.

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