The ballot issue committee with ties to Sinclair Broadcast Group that put a successful charter amendment to set term limits for Baltimore elected officials is now pursuing a measure that would reduce the size of the City Council from 14 districts to eight.

In August, the People for Elected Accountability & Civic Engagement updated its statement of organization to the Maryland Board of Elections to reflect the new ballot measure effort. PEACE’s original statement of organization was to support ballot measures to create term limits for elected officials and recall other elected officials.

The ballot committee’s first recorded contribution in March 2022 was $325,000 from David Smith, the Cockeysville businessman who founded and oversees as executive chairman the Sinclair Broadcast Group. Headquartered in Hunt Valley, Sinclair operates more than 180 stations throughout the country, including the company’s flagship Baltimore station, WBFF Fox45. The station frequently covers City Hall, airing coverage that CNN media critic David Zurawik has described as a steady drumbeat of criticism toward incumbent Democratic leaders, including Mayor Brandon Scott.

Smith’s spokesman declined to comment.

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PEACE funded grassroots canvassing efforts to collect 10,000 signatures from city residents to put the term limits and recall ballot measures before voters in November 2022. The former netted enough signatures to land on the ballot and passed overwhelmingly with 71% of the vote; the latter failed to garner enough signatures.

Jovani Patterson, who ran for City Council president as a Republican in 2020 and serves as PEACE’s chairman, confirmed the ballot initiative seeks to reduce the council from 14 to eight districts, but noted that other modifications to the initiative’s language are “still on the table.”

“The signature process has been started, but it hasn’t been completely finalized,” he said.

PEACE ended last year with just under $3,200, according to campaign finance records from January 2023, the most recent available. Candidates and political action groups do not have to file their next campaign finance reports until 2024.

Past signature campaigns have successfully led to redistricting

The Baltimore City Council consists of a council president, who is elected by all residents, and 14 council members who represent different local districts. The legislative body has taken different shapes and sizes over the years: From 1923 to 2004, the council had six geographic districts, each of which had three representatives.

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The council took its current shape after Baltimoreans in 2002 voted yes on Question P to shrink the membership of the council and reshape districts. That charter amendment landed on the ballot after a coalition of activist and labor groups collected 10,000 signatures from city residents. It saw fierce opposition from many establishment politicians, including then-Mayor Martin O’Malley and then-City Council President Sheila Dixon.

Mayor Brandon Scott introduced a redistricting map of his own last month. City charter requires the mayor and council to agree on redrawn district lines after each census, which takes place every 10 years. Guidelines require 14 distinct districts of roughly the same populations, which in 2024 averages about 42,000 residents per district.

Patterson said PEACE is “not necessarily unsatisfied” with Scott’s current redistricting effort, but that voters should get to pick the districts, not politicians.

“When you compare Baltimore City to some of our surrounding counties, we’re inflated when it comes to the representation we have,” he said. “We want a system that’s more responsive with basic city services and that’s more representative of Baltimore.”

Each of the council’s 15 representatives are up for reelection next year. All are Democrats; in deep-blue Baltimore, the primary is tantamount to the general election.

emily.sullivan@thebaltimorebanner.com

Emily Sullivan covers Baltimore City Hall. She joined the Banner after three years at WYPR, where she won multiple awards for her radio stories on city politics and culture. She previously reported for NPR’s national airwaves, focusing on business news and breaking news. 

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