Civil rights lawyers filed suit today against Pokomoke City on the Eastern Shore, contending the at-large voting system there effectively prevents blacks from winning election to local office.

Hours after the suit was filed in U.S. District Court by Pokomoke City residents Alonzo and Brenda Schoolfield, the City Council gave preliminary approval to a measure that would amend the city charter to replace the at-large system with voting by election districts, according to City Manager Russell Blake.

A final vote on the measure will be scheduled for Jan. 6 after a public hearing, Blake said.

The Schoolfields' lawsuit is the fifth brought by civil rights activists against an Eastern Shore municipality in the last year. In July, Dorchester County was ordered to scrap at-large elections under terms of a consent decree reached with the U.S. Justice Department, which sued the county last year.

Pokomoke City, population 3,558, is one-third black, but has never had a black mayor or a black member of the city council, as far as lawyers for the Schoolfields can determine or city officials can remember.

The Schoolfields contend that the at-large elections in the Worcester County city dilute black voting strength, in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act.

The Schoolfields also contend that "dual registration" in Pokomoke City -- requiring voters to register once for city elections and once for all other elections -- is designed to make it more difficult for blacks to vote.

City Manager Blake said city officials have had an "ongoing dialogue" with local representatives of the NAACP on the subject of elections by district. "I'm surprised at the suit being filed." he said. "We were making progress on that."

Similar suits filed against the City of Annapolis and the towns of Princess Anne, Snow Hill and Easton have either been settled or are in mediation. Only Somerset County has decided to fight to retain at-large elections.