Friday, May 23, 2008

Finding a voice

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The Springhill Lake apartment complex has the highest crime rate in Greenbelt and contains about 10,000 residents (about half the nearly 23,000 living in the entire city), but has no representation on the City Council.

Some blame the city’s voting system. Greenbelt uses an at-large voting system that requires council members to be elected by voters citywide and represent the city as a whole, instead of being assigned to districts.

Although black residents make up the majority of the city, 41.3 percent as of the 2000 Census, there has never been a black council member or representation from Springhill Lake. White residents make up 39.7 percent, according to the latest statistics. So the American Civil Liberties Union is correctly seeking to change the system to allow for single-district representation.

The blame for the lack of representation does not rest solely with the system, however. With minorities in the majority, simply turning out in large numbers at the polls would ensure better representation.

However, there is an apathy toward voting in the city that is likely caused by a combination of high turnover from renters, a large immigrant population and years of being overlooked by the system.

In the 2005 city elections, Springhill Lake resident Charles Allen Jr. told The Gazette that the complex is often left out of the loop during campaign season.

‘‘In the 16 years that I have lived here, I have not once seen a candidate come by to introduce themselves or even a sign saying ‘Vote for me.’ They don’t come by here and that’s a problem,” said Allen, 51. ‘‘I see more Jehovah’s Witnesses than I do the candidates around here.”

In the same election, only 62 Springhill Lake residents voted, down from 76 in 2003. That number decreased to 39 in the 2007 elections.

Candidates pledged to increase their outreach, but those seeking office tend to go where they can get votes and for now, at least, they aren’t getting them in Springhill Lake.

District representation would level the playing field. There is no excuse for such a large segment of Greenbelt to not have a voice working specifically for them.

In 2004, soon after the city of Bowie switched from an at-large system, Greenbelt Mayor Judith Davis cautioned against single-member districts in the city, saying it would pit neighborhoods against each other.

However, in Bowie, the largest city in the county, the change has yielded minority representation on the council. Communities that once complained they were being overlooked now have a crusader on their behalf in government meetings.

Even state officials acknowledge the importance of district representation. Gov. Martin O’Malley signed into law last week legislation that will alter the makeup of the county school board into all single-member districts beginning with the 2010 election.

Greenbelt is one of the county’s five largest cities but, of that group, the only one with a completely at-large election system.

Concerns over selfish acts by council members can be lessened by having a hybrid of district and at-large representatives, as do Bowie and Laurel. However, keeping a 71-year-old system in place that does not provide equal representation should not be an option.