The Baltimore City Council backtracked Friday evening on plans to fast-track a vote on the city’s new political map, after City Council President Nick Mosby and Mayor Brandon Scott worked out a compromise, at least temporarily, in a clash over the redistricting timetable.
Mosby maintained at a hearing Friday morning that the council needed to expedite a vote on the proposal Monday, saying the body’s hands were tied if it wanted to avoid an outcome that could allow the mayor to bypass its say in the mapmaking.
Such a quick push would have mostly precluded community input in Baltimore’s redistricting process.
But in a letter to Mosby Friday afternoon, Scott seemed to accept the council president’s terms, expressing that he believes the body should have the opportunity to respond if he vetoed their district map.
“With that said, I hope that we can come to an agreement on the map such that a veto is not necessary,” the mayor said.
In a brief response, Mosby thanked Scott for his “agreement to provide the necessary time” for City Council to hear community input and draft its own map.
Mosby told The Baltimore Banner that it would not be a sign of “good faith” if the mayor ended up preventing the council’s chance to override a veto despite the commitment laid out in the letter. A special meeting Mosby had scheduled for Monday to push through a counter proposal was cancelled, Mosby said.
The compromise lifted some pressure off the city’s redistricting timeline. Earlier in the day, Mosby accused the mayor of “putting a gun” to the council, forcing it to either make a premature decision or allow the mayor’s proposed district map, introduced less than two weeks ago, to become law.
While the time crunch may be the fault of the city charter, Mosby said that it’s unacceptable for Scott’s office not to allow adequate time for City Council to perform its duties.
The council will likely have to act on a redistricting plan without time for thorough community input, something neither side surely wants, Mosby said. “But this is the position that you’re putting us in.”
Friday’s hearing came just three days after the City Council gathered for the first time to discuss the redistricting plan. Mosby raised the concern at that hearing that if the council didn’t move almost immediately to approve an alternative to Scott’s proposal, they could be denied a chance to override a veto.
While the city charter allows the council 60 days from when the mayor introduced his proposal to review the plan, adopt it or submit an alternative, attorneys with the law department told council members that the city has a hard deadline to finalize its map.
That leaves the possibility that Scott could take the maximum time after the council approved its own version of the map to veto, Mosby pointed out at the time, effectively “running the clock out” and preventing a chance for the council to override his decision.
A timeline proposed by Mosby earlier in the week would allow for two community input sessions, culminating in a final City Council vote on Oct. 16 and a decision by the mayor on Oct. 30. That would leave enough time in the 60-day window for the council to override a veto if it so chose.
The mayor’s Chief of Staff Marvin James, speaking at Friday’s hearing, echoed his position from earlier in the week and said he still needed to confer with Scott about how he would handle Mosby’s proposed timeline. Even so, James pointed to steps he took prior to the introduction of the mayor’s proposal to hear out questions and concerns from council members and said it’s difficult to envision the mayor committing to a course that would limit his executive authority.
The ramifications of the clash between Mosby and Scott for Baltimore’s new district lines remain unclear: The council has yet to share an alternative to Scott’s map, and pushing through another version still depends on Mosby having support for the idea from his fellow members.
Though much of the council was present for Friday morning’s hearing, only Councilman Eric Costello echoed Mosby’s concerns. No others asked questions Friday. Earlier in the week, Councilman Antonio Glover questioned the mayor’s office about the implications of a change to his district for Black residents who would be excluded.
Baltimore’s redistricting process, which happens after the census every 10 years, 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.”
Under the city charter, the mayor was not obligated to introduce his proposed map until February, but James has said the office wanted to get its plan to the council sooner to ensure enough time ahead of next year’s May primary elections.
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 Costello’s 11th District, which wraps around the other side of the water, from Locust Point to downtown and north to Mount Vernon.
A handful of community members attended Friday’s hearing, appealing to the mayor’s office and council to pump the brakes so the public can weigh in.
“I beg of y’all to please slow this down. Let the people talk. Let the people be heard,” said Elizabeth Rehn of Morrell Park, who asked the council not to approve a map that splits her Southwest Baltimore community into separate districts, as the mayor’s plan would.
Rehn was among several community members who testified Friday against plans to split their neighborhoods into different districts.
Representatives from the Bolton Hill Community Association have also written to council members to oppose plans to divide their community between Councilman James Torrence’s 7th District and and Costello’s 11th District. The neighborhood is currently encompassed entirely by Costello’s district, and the association expressed fears of “setting areas within Bolton Hill against each other” with the division.
Sarah Bluher of Old Goucher, meanwhile, lives in an irregularly shaped “dog-leg” area of Scott’s map that is proposed to join Torrence’s district. Bluher and her neighbors don’t share many of the same concerns as 7th District residents, she said, leaving them “hanging there.” She called for city leaders to hold more public input sessions at more accessible times of the day to ensure communities are appropriately grouped in the final map.
Of particular frustration to Mosby has been a delay by the mayor’s office to share “shape files” of the mayor’s map — editable digital versions of the plan — until late Thursday night, which he said prevented the council from working on changes under their crunched timeline.
Mosby told reporters after the hearing that the weekend doesn’t give the council enough time to come up with a satisfactory plan, but added, “we would have to.” The council president recessed Friday’s meeting saying he would wait to see Scott’s final position in writing, but set a schedule for the body to vote a plan through committee Monday before expediting a final vote at their regularly schedule meeting later in the day.
Asked whether he has the support to vote through a counterproposal in the first place, the council president said he’s most concerned about allowing time for residents to participate in the process.
“It’s less about the council coming up with an alternative plan and more about the community being engaged,” he said.
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 Mosby for the at-large council president seat and will 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.