Voters could be asked to change Baltimore’s redistricting process on ballots this fall, but some proposed amendments conflict

Baltimore voters could be asked to restructure the city’s redistricting process if the City Council passes a proposed ballot question introduced by Councilman Zeke Cohen on Monday.

The question would ask voters to establish a redistricting commission that would create a proposed redistricting plan every 10 years following the release of census data. The plan would then be subject to approval by the mayor and City Council.

Members of the commission would be able to volunteer for the positions, which must represent each of the city’s 14 council districts. Cohen’s legislation calls for the city’s comptroller to select a member for each district at random.

Cohen said the current process requires city representatives to determine their own districts, creating an inherent conflict.

“The people of Baltimore should select their representatives, not the other way around,” he said.

Since 2002, Baltimore has had 14 council districts. The council president, the board’s 15th member, is elected citywide. All 15 members are Democrats.

Baltimore’s redistricting process has been in the spotlight since the city’s most recent redistricting effort was conducted last year, leading to the introduction of several proposed amendments, some of them conflicting with one another. Currently, Baltimore’s charter calls for the mayor to draft a proposed redistricting plan every 10 years following the census and ahead of the next municipal election. The mayor then introduces the plan to the council which is required to take action within 60 days.

That tight timeline spurred conflict last year between Mayor Brandon Scott, a Democrat, and the council after it became clear the council had to move quickly to approve or amend Scott’s plan within the 60-day window if it hoped to have time to override a mayoral veto. After assurances from Scott about his commitment to include the council in the process, the council chose to take additional time to consider the plan. It passed an alternative map proposed by Council President Nick Mosby with the assistance of a consultant in October. Scott raised objections to the alternative plan and ultimately vetoed it in November, leaving too little time for a veto override. Scott’s plan became law.

Council members were critical of the mayor’s veto, arguing it ignored the will of city residents, some of whom were vocal at community meetings the council held to discuss the plan.

“In no stretch of the imagination is this good governance,” Mosby told fellow council members on the night the veto was announced.

Mosby has introduced proposed charter amendments that would also amend the redistricting process in the wake of the dispute. One, introduced last month, would strip the mayor’s veto power on future redistricting plans. The amendment would also lengthen the timeline for the council to consider redistricting plans.

Mosby introduced a separate proposed charter amendment in November that would change the timeline for mayoral vetoes. Under Mosby’s plan, the mayor would be required to veto measures within two weeks of them being passed by the City Council and delivered to his office. The veto must then be reconsidered within 20 days. If two-thirds of the council vote to override the mayor’s veto, it would be adopted. Currently, the mayor has three regular meetings of the City Council to return a veto.

Mosby’s amendment would also allow the council the opportunity to override vetoes at special meetings, “removing the restrictions that have hampered the redistricting process,” he said at the time.

All of the proposed charter amendments require approval from the council and Scott before they can be placed on the ballot for the consideration of voters.

Additional charter amendments may be headed to the 2024 ballot via an alternative process that allows petitioners to gather signatures in support of issues. One of those proposed amendments, a question that would cut the size of the City Council in half, would amend the city charter language defining the redistricting process.

The measure, which has been circulated by People for Elected Accountability & Civic Engagement, calls for the mayor to prepare a redistricting plan for the council with eight districts instead of the current 14. The proposed amendment then directs the council to consider the plan within 60 days.

Circulators for the ballot question have gathered more than 25,000 signatures in support of the effort. Only 10,000 are required to put the issue on the ballot, making it likely the question will be cleared by the Baltimore City Board of Elections. Campaign finance records show the effort has been funded almost entirely by David Smith, executive chairman of Sinclair Broadcasting Group. Smith’s Hunt Valley-based television broadcasting company operates 185 television stations, including WBFF-TV, known as Fox 45, in Baltimore. Last month, he purchased The Baltimore Sun.

Baltimore Solicitor Ebony Thompson said the city’s attorneys will be responsible for balancing competing charter amendments after voters have weighed in. If two or more charter amendments are “entirely conflicting,” they will cancel each other out and city law will remain the same, she said. If there are conflicting parts, attorneys will have to analyze if multiple measures can coexist.

“That’s going to be the analysis — if there’s any way to make them work,” Thompson said. “That’s why the language is so important.”

Language for ballot questions will not be finalized until the summer.