A history of Howard County Council redistricting, part 6

7 minute read

In part 5 of this series nothing much happened in relation to actually doing something about council districts (as opposed to just talking about their potential effect, as in the case of Charles Feaga’s unsuccessful 1982 council bid). In this post doing something moves to the fore.

1983. The council district controversy continues to attract attention. Attorney C. William Michaels uses one of his weekly Baltimore Sun County Counsel columns to make the case against council districts: [Districts] would not solve the problem of urban-rural rivalry, but only crystallize and intensify it. … Columbia and Howard county are inextricably intertwined. … Columbia residents are hard to convince about … the interests they should have in preserving [the county’s] unique and very special mix of urban, rural, and suburban life. Columbia residents need to be convinced of this rather than being given up for lost … He proposes resurrecting the idea of incorporating Columbia, to give Columbia its own power base, and its own political spokesperson.1

(Proposed Councilmanic districts could divide residents on issues)

January-August 1984. A new movement forms to elect council members by district. It proposes having five districts, with a requirement that districts be compact, contiguous, substantially equal in population, and have common interest as a result of geography, occupation, history, or existing political boundaries. Opponents of the proposal include Democratic council members Lloyd Knowles and C. Vernon Gray. Knowles comments, You’d end up having a very parochial Council that doesn’t look out for the county as a whole, while Gray states I do not see a rationale for it. Proponents include Democratic county executive J. Hugh Nichols and Democratic council member James Clark (not to be confused with state senator James Clark, Jr.). Council chair Elizabeth Bobo sees both positives and negatives in council districts.2

The group Howard Countians for Councilmanic Districts starts a petition drive to get a district proposal on the ballot. James Mundy of HCCD advocates council districts as a way to promote accountability of council members and service this county’s diversity a little better. He dismisses concerns about reducing Columbia’s voting power, noting that Columbia’s population growth was projected to taper off while the rest of the county caught up, so that council districts could be drawn to be homogeneous [and] geographically sensible.

Most opinion divides on similar lines as before: Republican state delegate Robert Kittleman speaks out in favor of the proposal, while the Columbia Council opposes it. However the Howard County Human Rights Commission surprises some by unanimously opposing council districts as divisive and detrimental to the progress of human rights in the county, based largely on the contention that census figures showed minorities were dispersed throughout the county. Commission member Herbert Wheeles notes that “I don’t see how they could draw up districts without seriously diluting the [minority] vote.”3

The commission’s decision occurs at the same time that Howard and twelve other counties are being audited by Maryland attorney general Stephen Sachs as part of an investigation into whether at-large elections are producing illegal discrimination. Council district proponent D. Craig Horn finds the commission’s action curious, claiming that the district proposal had been endorsed by the NAACP and noting that in general minority groups tend to congregate.

After eight months of work by over 300 people soliciting signatures, council district proponents turn in over 13,000 signatures on a petition to place their proposal on the November ballot, well more than the 10,000 signatures needed and exceeding their goal of 12,000.

(New drive forms to elect Council members by district, New drive forms to seek Council by district voting, Kittleman favors district elections, Columbia Council opposes councilmanic districting, Districting finds unusual foe, District election nears ballot as group offers petitions)

November 1984. By a 58%-42% margin (26,353 to 18,939) Howard County voters approve Question A, a charter amendment to elect county council members by district. Council members are to be elected from individual districts, of which the members must be residents:4

The legislative power of the County is vested in the County Council of Howard County which shall consist of five members who shall be elected from the Councilmanic Districts. ... Each of the members of the Council shall be nominated and elected by the qualified voters of the Councilmanic District in which he or she resides. Each Councilmanic District shall elect one Council member. ... Each candidate for the council shall have resided in the County for a period of not less than two years immediately prior to nomination; shall be a registered voter; and shall be a resident of the Council District which the candidate seeks to represent at the time of filing for candidacy and during the full term of office; ... If any member of the County Council shall move his or her residence from the Councilmanic District in which he or she has resided at the time of his or her election, such member shall immediately forfeit his or her office, but no member shall be affected by any redistricting during the balance of the then current term of office.

The measure leaves it up to the County Council to determine district lines:5

The boundaries of the Councilmanic Districts shall be established by the Council subsequent to the publication of each decennial census of the population of the United States, but not later than March 15 of the year following such publication. Any Councilmanic District established in accordance with this Article shall be compact, contiguous, substantially equal in population, and have common interest as a result of geography, occupation, history, or existing political boundaries. ...

while a transitional provision (Section 1202) requires the first council districts to be set by March 15, 1986.

Republican state delegate Robert Kittleman hails the vote as the dawning of the two-party system in Howard County while Howard County Democratic chair James Kraft decries the district scheme as making election of minority candidates more difficult. Elizabeth Bobo reminds district proponents that Columbia and Ellicott City will continue to have most of the county population, and Kraft sees the districts as being drawn in a politically pragmatic manner: You’ve got to remember—the five Council members are going to draw the map. They aren’t stupid. The Baltimore Sun urges council members to undertake [their] ticklish mission judiciously and quickly, even if some of them will be writing their own political obituaries.

Meanwhile a semi-random sampling of county bar-goers asked about the new district scheme seems somewhat unclear on the concept and suspicious of the motivation behind the question (What’re ya, a historian?, a bartender asks a reporter). But one Wilde Lake resident sees an unexpected blessing: The county could solve its financial problems for years to come by selling tickets to the meetings where they’re going to draw the councilmanic district lines.

(Howard County Charter, Forecasts vary on effect of new Howard districts, District win gives Council hot duty of drawing map, New Districts in Howard, “What’s a district?” county residents ask)

In part 7 and other future posts in this series we’ll see whether council districting proved as entertaining as promised. Note that because of holiday obligations I’ve had to slow down the pace of new installments, so please be patient!

  1. C. William Michaels wrote his Sun column from 1981 through 1983. According to an online biography Michaels later became active in various peace and social justice groups in the Baltimore area, and more recently was author of the book No Greater Threat: America After September 11 and the Rise of a National Security State. In the early 1980s Michaels was fairly young (late twenties), and it’s hard to resist the idea of him as a liberal pre-blogging version of HoCo Rising. I guess that means it’s about time for some local news outlet (Patch?) to give HCR a more formal outlet for his opinions. (Or perhaps HCR can mine Michaels’s old columns for blog post ideas, for example updating the Test your citizen IQ column Michaels ran in September 1982.) 

  2. Given that the compact, contiguous, etc. language of the proposal was eventually adopted into the Howard County charter (and indeed, remains there to this day), I’m curious as to how and why that exact formulation was chosen. Was it modeled on existing district schemes in other jurisdictions? Did it reflect language used in state or Federal court cases on redistricting? I invite knowledgeable readers to add their thoughts in the comments section. 

  3. I find it odd that neither Wheeles nor anyone else quoted in the article mentioned Vernon Gray’s successful 1982 election as an at-large council member, in which he defeated Charles Feaga even though Feaga benefited from single-shot voting as the sole Republican candidate. Wouldn’t Gray’s success as a minority candidate have been relevant to the question under discussion? 

  4. The language quoted is from the Howard County charter as of November 6, 1990, the first version after the original 1968 version that I could find at the Howard County Library Central Branch. If I can obtain an electronic copy of the 1984 version of the charter I’ll post it and link to it. The language relating to council districts and the redistricting process is in Section 202, subsections (a), (b), and (f). 

  5. Note that the 1984 charter language left some ambiguity as to how exactly the Council was to do redistricting, and whether the Council’s action was subject to the county executive’s veto as provided for by Section 209(f). The consequences of this ambiguity proved to be fairly significant, as we shall see in future posts.