The all-male Baltimore County Council with only one Black member is being presented as “Exhibit A” as to why the structure of the body needs to change.
A workgroup is preparing to make recommendations to the council on whether the seven member County Council should be increased to nine or even 11 members.
Because it would be the first such change since the county charter was established in 1956, one member of the workgroup, Sheila Lewis, called it a “once in a lifetime” opportunity.
At a recent public hearing, Crystal Francis, who is Black, a Democrat, and lost a 2022 council race to Republican David Marks, told the work group the seven member council should be increased to 11. Francis said smaller districts and more seats would improve the odds for women and minorities.
“So that the makeup of the council is similar to the makeup of the population in terms of gender, ethnicity and partisan affiliation,” Francis said.
Baltimore County is about 30% Black. Minorities make up almost 50% of its population.
Another losing council candidate in 2022, Caitlin Klimm-Kellner, said she struggled to raise the money she needed to compete in a council district with around 127,000 people.
“I think that if it was a smaller representation, a more localized district, that would not have been as much of a problem,” Klimm-Kellner said.
With hundreds, not thousands of dollars in her campaign warchest, Klimm-Kellner came in third in a four-way race for the Democratic nomination in the 6th Council District with more than 20% of the vote.
Baltimore County’s population has nearly tripled since the charter established a seven member council. In 1960, there were around 70,000 people in each council district. Now the average is about 122,000.
County Council Chairman Izzy Patoka, a Democrat, said he supports adding seats.
“I hope that the work group comes up with a recommendation to do that,” Patoka said. “If that does come to fruition then we’ve got to get a ballot measure put together fairly quickly.”
The work group has to give its report to the council by the end of March. It then will take the support of at least five of the seven members to put the question to the voters in November.
The work group is hearing other ideas about how to change the council, including having a president who would be elected countywide, like in Baltimore City.
If seats are added, all of the County Council districts will have to be redrawn because they have to be roughly the same size. Former Councilwoman Vicki Almond, a Democrat who serves on the workgroup, said that can be a difficult process.
“There’s been so much redistricting over the years that we have divided communities,” Almond said. “We have done a lot of that and I’m not quite sure it was the best way to do it.”
The last time the County Council redrew the council map, in 2021, it was sued by the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP for having only one majority Black district. The suit was settled when the council created two additional minority-majority districts, meaning all minorities combined make up a majority of the voters in those two districts.
Patty Fallon, the chair of the Baltimore County Republican Party, fears the Democrats would use their 4-3 control of the County Council to make sure any newly created seats would favor them.
“We need to be careful not to make every issue about race. I’m just going to say it,” Fallon said. “It’s about similar communities who have similar issues.”
Republican Councilman Todd Crandell doesn’t support expanding the County Council. In a text message, Crandell said “the Council functions very well with seven members.”
Adding seats would come at a price. County officials estimate it would annually cost $675,000 for each new County Council office, which includes salaries, supplies, equipment and benefits.
They also said a renovation of council offices in Towson would be needed at an estimated cost of $12 million.
Keith Dorsey, the county’s former budget director, who is a member of the work group, said it’s their job to make a recommendation on the council’s size, not find the money to pay for it.
“We can’t make a determination of what the fiscal capacity is for the county to afford to do this,” Dorsey said.
County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. would need to put the money for an expanded council in his annual budget. Olszewski, who officially announced his bid for Congress this week, said he supports adding seats.
WYPR is a media partner of The Baltimore Banner.