After a contentious process to redraw Baltimore’s political map ended last fall with Mayor Brandon Scott sinking City Council President Nick Mosby’s plan at the last minute, one council member is proposing to take the process out of the hands of politicians.

Under changes proposed by Councilman Zeke Cohen, the once-in-a-decade task of drawing and approving new district lines would go to an independent commission comprised mostly of community representatives.

The proposal comes after the mapmaking process last fall led to a series of clashes between Scott and Mosby, with much of their dispute focused around tight deadlines that forced council to hurry and ultimately granted the mayor the last word. Though the City Council approved changes to the map they received from the Scott administration, the mayor issued an eleventh hour veto that deprived the legislative body of a chance to respond. That move scrapped many adjustments Mosby and council members had made in response to community concerns with the original map.

The reform plan, outlined in a proposed charter amendment and accompanying bill introduced before the City Council Monday, competes with a separate proposal introduced last month by Mosby, whom Cohen is challenging in May’s Democratic primary for City Council president. Like Cohen’s suggestion, the Mosby plan aims to better incorporate community feedback into the redistricting process, providing more time for the council to make edits and mandating public input sessions. Mosby’s plan would also strip future mayors of the power to override changes to the map made by the council, preventing outcomes like Scott’s last-minute veto.

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Both Cohen and Mosby’s plans need approval from the full council to get onto November’s general election ballot, where residents would vote on the proposed reforms.

The mapmaking process last year became “too political,” Cohen said Monday, morphing into “a battle” between Scott and Mosby. Cohen said he appreciated that the solution proposed by Mosby would eliminate the “pocket veto” that Scott deployed last year, but said his approach goes a step further to “eliminate political interference — period.”

The commission established under Cohen’s proposal would be composed of 17 members: one representing each of the city’s 14 council districts, one chosen from the city at-large, and two redistricting experts selected by the other commissioners. City residents would have an opportunity to apply for membership on the commission, with qualified applicants selected at random — an approach Cohen said is meant to ensure commission members aren’t merely stand-ins for their council representatives.

The independent commission would hire a consultant to help in the mapmaking process and draft a plan. That map would go to the City Council and the mayor, who would have an opportunity to weigh in and make revisions, though the independent body would get the final say on the version passed into law.

Current charter requirements don’t call for the mayor to introduce a redistricting plan after a census until the year of a City Council election and require the city to finalize its map in a tight, 60-day window. Cohen’s plan pushes that process up to the year after new census data comes out and draws it out over a six-month period, mandating public hearings to field community feedback.

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Mosby said in a statement that he looks forward to “productive discourse and discussion” about the competing ideas, adding that there are “inherent problems” in the current charter requirements.

The timing of last year’s redistricting process was a point of contention between Scott and the council president from the start.

Attorneys with the law department argued that the 60-day window to finalize legislative lines included any back-and-forth between the mayor and council, so Mosby moved aggressively to get a plan to Scott’s desk. Though the two sides seemed to find a compromise before that deadline in October, the last-minute timing of Scott’s veto ultimately left the council with no opportunity to respond.

Scott spokesman Bryan Doherty said the mayor looks forward to reviewing the specifics of Cohen’s proposal. “In general,” the administration is “aligned with a more inclusive and less politicized process,” Doherty said.

At the time of his veto in November, Scott said the version of the map approved by council fell short of his standards for balancing district populations and ensuring an equitable distribution of resources and institutions. Scott’s team also argued at the time that they offered Mosby compromises that he didn’t accept, leaving the mayor with “no choice but to veto.”

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Baltimore is required to redraw its district lines every 10 years, after the release of new population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. The process in Baltimore kicked off later than it did for other jurisdictions around Maryland, many of which finalized their new maps in 2022.

Regardless of the outcome in the council’s efforts to reform redistricting, there may be dramatic changes in store for the legislative body. A ballot petition to cut the size of the City Council from 14 districts to eight turned in more than 25,000 signatures late last year, all but ensuring that the measure will go before voters in November. That ballot petition is financed almost exclusively by Baltimore County businessman David Smith, the new owner of The Baltimore Sun and executive chairman of the conservative-leaning Sinclair, Inc.

Cohen said he is looking into what happens if both his redistricting commission and the proposal to shrink the council are approved by voters.

But the redistricting commission “is urgent on its own,” he said. “Because we want to ensure that people pick their representatives, not the other way around.”

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the month that Mayor Brandon Scott vetoed the City Council’s redistricting plan.

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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