City Council plans to move aggressively this week to push through Baltimore’s new district maps in order to avoid an outcome that could allow Mayor Brandon Scott to bypass the body’s say in the redistricting process.

That was the message Tuesday from City Council President Nick Mosby at an initial hearing on the mayor’s proposed redistricting plan. According to the city charter, the council has 60 days from when Scott introduced his map last Monday to act on the proposal — an already tight window.

But Mosby pressed Scott’s office Tuesday on the possibility that the mayor could take the maximum amount of time after the council approved its own version of the map to veto, preventing a chance for the council to override his decision — effectively “running the clock out” and “nullifying” council’s say in the process.

Scott Chief of Staff Marvin James, speaking at the hearing, said he needed to consult city lawyers before making any commitments about how Scott would handle a proposal from the council. James said the mayor’s office began intensive work on the proposed map about a month ago and emphasized the importance of hearing public input now that the maps are publicly available.

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City Council has a follow-up committee hearing scheduled for Friday, which Mosby explained is on the calendar in case the body opts to push its own proposal through on an expedited timeline. The council has a regularly scheduled meeting Monday night, where it could push a map through to a final vote in order to start the clock on a mayor veto.

The statutory 60-day deadline requires the council to act on the proposal by Nov. 17. Attorneys with the city’s law department argued that the redistricting proposal should be handled like other city ordinances, which allow Scott to wait three council meetings before notifying the body of a veto. If the council were to vote through its own map this Monday, that would leave just enough time on the back-end to override the mayor.

Of course, such a frenzied push hinges on Mosby having the backing from his fellow council members for an alternative plan. Whether the council can actually come up with an alternative by Friday will depend on whether the the city can “muster up enough energy” this week to accommodate concerns with the plan, Mosby said after Tuesday’s hearing. “They might come out of this and say that they love the map and want to move forward.”

While the deadline for the mayor to introduce his proposed district lines isn’t until February, the mayor’s office has said it wanted to get its proposal to the council well in advance of that deadline to allow adequate preparation time for next year’s May primary. Digital files that allow members to change and edit district lines, however, have not yet been shared with the council, Mosby said.

Mosby’s interpretation of the timeline was based on an opinion the City Council received from the Law Department arguing that the city’s map will have to be finalized within the 60 day window, concluding that the body “can avoid the scenario” in question “by acting quickly to adopt its plan.” Deputy City Solicitor Stephen Salsbury told the council Tuesday that the department’s opinion drew on previous redistricting processes in Baltimore, which have been completed within the statutory timeframe.

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The mapping process seeks to divide city voters into 14 distinct districts of roughly equal populations — this time aiming for about 42,000 residents per district. Mapmakers are also legally required to draw districts that are “contiguous” and “compact.”

Some precincts in Central Baltimore, where residents have flocked in the last decade even as the city’s total population has declined, would see their representation changed under the mayor’s proposed map. Particularly affected are Councilmen Zeke Cohen’s 1st District, which stretches from the southeastern border of Baltimore to Little Italy and Harbor East, and Eric Costello’s 11th District, which wraps around the other side of the water, from Locust Point to Downtown and north to Mount Vernon.

Mosby first took steps to prepare for redistricting in March of 2022, hiring the Virginia-based CensusChannel to help in the map-making process for $33,750.

CensusChannel CEO Tony Fairfax presented his own analysis of the mayor’s proposal Tuesday and raised concerns about a handful of aspects of the map. The proposal that Councilwoman Phylicia Porter’s district extend into Port Covington, crossing the Patapsco River, for example, goes against a recommendation to heed natural boundaries, he said.

The irregular shapes in a few areas — the legal requirement known as “compactness” — may also raise questions or concerns for some residents, Fairfax cautioned. None of these issues look like violations of the city’s legal requirements, Fairfax said, but he noted that portions like a narrow “dog leg” that would extend from West Baltimore’s 7th District — represented by Councilman James Torrence — into Central Baltimore’s 12th District, represented by Robert Stokes, might lead to confusion or frustration from residents.

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Torrence pushed back on Fairfax’s analysis, arguing that the consultant was relying on “assumptions” about how constituents might respond that need to be informed by talking with residents in the affected areas.

Scott’s proposed map would cede Little Italy and Harbor East from Cohen’s district to the 12th District. Part of Upper Fells Point and the area just north of Patterson Park — both currently represented by Cohen — would go to the 13th District represented by Antonio Glover, while the area surrounding Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center would go to the 2nd District represented by Danielle McCray. Parts of Bolton Hill, Madison Park and Druid Heights currently represented by Costello, meanwhile, would mostly get picked up by the 7th District.

Notably, Camden Yards would also change representation. The Orioles’ stadium currently sits near the western border of Costello’s district, but would fall into the 10th District, represented by Phylicia Porter, under the mayor’s proposed map. Part of the Port Covington area would also switch from Costello’s to Porter’s district, which spans much of South Baltimore.

The new district lines will play a consequential role in next year’s council elections, when each of the 15 representatives, all Democrats, is up for reelection. For the last 20 years, the Baltimore City Council has had 14 members elected by their local districts. The council president is decided in a citywide election.

Cohen is challenging Council President Nick Mosby for the at-large president seat, meaning he would vacate his East Baltimore District. One member, Councilman Kristerfer Burnett of West Baltimore, has announced that he does not plan to run for reelection in the 8th District.

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City charter requires Baltimore leaders to redraw legislative lines after each census, which happens every 10 years.

Since the last census in 2010, Baltimore has continued to suffer heavy losses in its population. According to a redistricting tool utilized by the mayor’s office, council members Sharon Green Middleton, Antonio Glover, James Torrence and John Bullock have seen the largest declines. Bullock’s West Baltimore District has the smallest population under current lines, at just over 35,000. Overall, the latest figures from the U.S. Census Bureau estimate 570,000 residents in Baltimore, a decline of more than 8% from the federal estimate in 2010.

Both Cohen and Costello’s districts encompass about 52,000 residents each under current lines.

adam.willis@thebaltimorebanner.com

Sharon Green Middleton’s name has been corrected.

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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