After a year and a half of often-bitter debate, the Takoma Park City Council has barely agreed on a redistricting plan. The vote at Monday's meeting was 4 to 3.
In those 18 months, more than 10 plans were examined and dozens of work sessions and council meetings were devoted to dividing the city into seven districts.
By this week's meeting, the council had whittled down the slew of proposals to four plans: three proposed by the council and one the work of a citizens' group. After much discussion, the council decided the plan drafted by Council Member Frank B. Garcia came closest to fulfilling federal requirements and the wishes of townspeople.
Under federal law, any redistricting plan must come as close as possible to the "one man, one vote" provision of the Fourteenth Amendment. This means the districts should have equal populations.
Since March 1980, when residents voted to elect council members from individual wards instead of using the present at-large system, redistricting has raised touchy issues in Takoma Park.
At two public hearings, residents attacked two of the three council plans, saying they would dilute minority voting strength by dividing a largely black area known as Maple Avenue Corridor into two districts. According to the 1980 census, more than one-third of Takoma Park's residents are black.
Adding to the confusion, both the mayor and city residents accused some council members of gerrymandering -- drawing district lines to benefit their own political needs.
But it was consideration of the Maple Avenue Corridor that ultimately led to the council's choice Monday.
Preliminary voting reduced the number of plans to two, which represented opposing views: Garcia's and a second proposal formulated by council members Jennifer Saloma and David B. Weisman.
Garcia's plan places most of the black population in one district, while Saloma and Weisman's divided the minority area into two parts.
Saloma and Weisman also had been accused of devising a plan whereby each incumbent would have his or her own ward from which to run for office. When Mayor Sam A. Abbott made that allegation in August, both Saloma and Weisman walked out of the council meeting.
Under Garcia's plan, approximately 75 percent of the new Ward 4 would be minority residents. Weisman and Saloma's plan would have had two wards dominated by minority populations. Ward 1 would have been approximately 56 percent black and Ward 4 would have been 55 percent black.
Supporters of both plans argued that the opposing proposal would lead to dilution of black voting power.
"I think there should at least be the opportunity allowed for one-third of the population to be represented by one third of the council," said Vernon Ricks, the only black on the council, who supported Saloma and Weisman's plan.
Garcia countered that splitting the population into two wards could create a situation where there may not be a black member on the council.
He said that although more than half the population of each ward would be black, the actual number of voters would be much smaller because many of Takoma Park's blacks are too young to vote or are not registered. He added that at two public hearings, an overwhelming number of Maple Avenue residents said they did not want their area split into two districts.
"If we are going to ignore the thrust of people's opinions at public hearings, why hold public hearings?" Garcia asked.
Four of the council members voted for Garcia's plan; Ricks sided with Saloma and Weisman.
The plan will now go to a public hearing, after which the council will take a final vote. Once the council has made its decision, the plan will be posted in the municipal center for 40 days and sent to the state for approval.
The charter amendment becomes effective 50 days after adoption, unless the state challenges it or a petition signed by at least 20 percent of the voters is filed with the city.