A history of Howard County Council redistricting, part 8

9 minute read

1985 was a busy year in Howard County Council districting news, so busy I’m having to split it into two parts. Part 7 covered the creation and public unveiling of various proposed district plans, starting with Plans A, B, and C, and continuing with Plan F. We pick up the story in the fall:1

November 1985. The county council holds public hearings on the three proposed district maps, ahead of the December date C. Vernon Gray had previously mooted; 32 people testify. The Columbia Council and other Columbians ask that all of Columbia’s villages be included in the proposed Columbia districts, and not be split between districts. David Marker of the Columbia Democratic Club notes that in practice this would be difficult, and recommends the council adopt a variant of Plan E; Angela Beltram of the Ellicott City Democratic Club offers a similar proposal. Republicans still favor a variant of Plan F.

The council splits 4-1 on which map to bring forward as the final choice. The lone dissenter is Lloyd Knowles, who prefers district boundaries that keep all Columbia villages intact. The map favored by the other council members puts most of Kings Contrivance and part of Owen Brown in a district with North Laurel, Savage, and Elkridge.2

(County Council is seeking input on new districts, Countians tell their views on redistricting, Districting plan gets preliminary OK from 4 of Howard’s 5 council members)

December 1985. The new Plan K favored by four of the council members is formally introduced, along with an alternate plan (dubbed the Undivided Village Plan) proposed by Lloyd Knowles. Plan K reverts to numbering the districts, eliminating the color-coding suggested by Knowles and used with previous plans; it includes the following districts:3

  • District 1 (formerly the Orange District) covers the eastern part of the county and includes Elkridge, Savage, and North Laurel, along with part of Ellicott City and parts of Kings Contrivance and Owen Brown.

  • District 2 (formerly the Yellow District) includes most of Ellicott City along with Dorsey’s Search.

  • District 3 (formerly the Blue District) is the east Columbia district; it includes all of Oakland Mills and Long Reach, along with the remaining parts of Kings Contrivance and Owen Brown that were not split off into District 1.

  • District 4 (formerly the Red District) is the west Columbia district, including Town Center, Wilde Lake, Hickory Ridge, Harpers Choice, and River Hill. It also includes some areas east of U.S. 29 and north of MD 32.

  • District 5 (formerly the Green District) covers the western part of the county.

District 1 is the largest district in population based on the 1980 census figures, at 2.6% above the ideal number of 23,714 (the county’s 1980 population of 118,572 divided by five). District 3 is the smallest district, 3.0% below the ideal number.

Knowles’s alternative Undivided Village Plan succeeds in keeping each Columbia village within a single district, but requires three districts to ensure that all villages are incorporated: an East-Central District that includes Long Reach and Oakland Mills (and then extends past I-95 to the eastern boundary of the county), a Southeast district that includes Owen Brown and Kings Contrivance (along with Savage and North Laurel), and a West Central District that includes all the remaining villages west of U.S. 29. The two remaining districts in the Undivided Village Plan are the Northeast District containing Elkridge and most of Ellicott City, and a West District covering western Howard.

The Bethany Community Association strongly objects to the Undivided Village Plan for effectively [giving] Columbia three councilpersons, while giving the majority of Howard County two: We’re supposed to be splitting the county into districts for the election of a County Council only; [the Undivided Village Plan] seems to split us into Howard County vs. Columbia! On the other hand, Dede Newport of the Howard County chapter of the National Organization for Women advocates the Undivided Village Plan as more likely … to ensure the election of at least three Council members that share our concerns based on past election results relating to ratification of the proposed Equal Rights Amendment and related issues: [We] are not saying that ALL non-Columbians are lacking in support for equal rights or human values. We are simply calling attention to obvious differences between Columbians and non-Columbians in AVERAGE degree of support.

As the year ends the Baltimore Sun editorial board looks forward to the adoption of the final plan and seems to think that voters will reward those who create a fair and equitable scheme: The final redistricting map must be adopted January 6. It certainly will not please everyone. But if it is done properly, Howard County citizens will remember who the mapmakers were when they go to the polls to select a new government.

(Districting concerns voiced, Districting/Dividing the county, New Political Maps in Howard)

January 1986. In an attempt to allay concerns expressed by some Columbians and in response to the Columbia Council’s overwhelming endorsement of Lloyd Knowles’s Undivided Village Plan, C. Vernon Gray and Ruth Keeton propose several amendments to Plan K. The most significant change is to extend District 3 (east Columbia) further eastward past I-95 all the way to U.S. 1. The modified plan also expands District 2 (Ellicott City) westward to include Turf Valley.

According to Gray the modified Plan K will keep all villages intact except for Owen Brown, of which 1,200 residents would be placed in another district due to the requirement to follow census block boundaries. (Gray promises to work to get census block boundaries changed in future to ensure Owen Brown is not split across blocks.) The result, according to Gray: 97% of Columbia will be within Districts 3 and 4, including 90% of Owen Brown.

However the proposed changes do little to mollify Columbia politicians and activists. Columbia Council chair Pamela Mack complains that the District 1 and 2 boundaries were considered sacrosant while village boundaries were not, and Kay Fowler, vice-chair of the Long Reach village board, concludes, In a word, Plan K stinks. Residents of Elkridge aren’t happy either, as they were hoping to be included in District 2 with Ellicott City instead of in District 1 with Savage and North Laurel. But I think this thing is pretty well decided, concludes Ed Huber, president of the Elkridge Citizens Association.

And indeed it is. Lloyd Knowles argues that Plan K violates the right to a secret ballot, since the interaction between council district boundaries and congressional district boundaries would require the creation of a precinct south of MD 108 with but a single voter. However his objections prove fruitless as the council votes 4-1 to approve the amended Plan K, accompanied by sniping between Knowles and C. Vernon Gray.

Knowles dismisses Gray’s claim to have kept almost all of Columbia united, comparing Gray’s assurances to someone beheading a chicken and then consoling it: never mind, Mr. Chicken, you’re 98% united. Gray snaps back: If you were more constructive when we put this plan together, we would have put this chicken together instead of the octopus you created. Elizabeth Bobo regrets Knowles’s unfair comments. She notes that the council faced a very, very difficult task for all council members and observes, Districting, by definition, is fragmenting.

No sooner is the ink dry on the final district plan than Charles Feaga announces his intention to run for the county council in District 5. Noting his runner-up performance in the 1982 at-large election, Feaga notes, Last time I got a late start and still lost by only 1,000 votes, and adds that he feels so good this time about his chances. Feaga also joins in criticism of the district plan: We entrusted [the council members] to do the job, but they are five very angry and disappointed people. Two could have put more work into districts. Three were constantly bickering. What we ended up with proved to us exactly what gerrymandering meant.

Meanwhile county executive J. Hugh Nichols finds his bid to be the Republican gubernatorial candidate isn’t going any better than his previous bid to be the Democratic candidate, as he receives no help from the Republican National Committee and can raise only about $30,000 on his own. As his term winds down and rumors swirl about a possible referendum challenge to the district plan, Nichols declines to sign the districting bill passed by the council, on the grounds that it would set a dangerous precedent given the charter language putting responsibility for drawing district lines on the county council: [It] was not my intent, nor do I believe it was the intent of others, that the executive have a role in the districting process.4

(All references are to the Columbia Flier: Final plan for districts is introduced, January 2, 1986, p. 16; Final Lines: Council votes 4-1 for amended districting plan K, January 9, 1986, p. 20; GOP stalwart seeks council, January 16, 1986, p. 22; Anti-district petition rumored, January 23, 1986, p. 23; Nichol’s quits again, maybe, January 23, 1986, p. 17)5

Merry Christmas/Happy Holidays to all of you who’ve been reading this series thus far. Thanks to all of you who’ve commented on the posts or linked to them. I’ll come back after the holidays to discuss the redistricting effort occasioned by the 1990 census, after first taking a (hopefully) brief detour to cover the county council and county executive elections of 1986 (in part 9) and 1990.

  1. Note that the events covered by this post run through January 1986, while the Baltimore Sun online archive has an almost five-year gap beginning January 1, 1986. I’ve therefore relied on articles from the Columbia Flier past the end of 1985. Unfortunately these articles are available only on microfilm, at the Central Branch of the Howard County Library. Ask the friendly folks at the information desk if you’re interested in reading the articles and need help with the microfilm readers (which, if you’re like me, you probably will).↩

  2. As noted in part 7, the problem was that Columbia’s 1980 population of 52,518 people was a bit too large for two districts, since two times the ideal district size of 23,717 plus a 5% overage per district would allow no more than 49,800 people to be included in two Columbia districts. However Columbia’s population fell well short of making up three districts, which together would need to include at least 68,000 people.↩

  3. Note that I’m guessing at some of the details of Plan K, based on the graphics published in the Baltimore Sun and the Columbia Flier.↩

  4. To my knowledge the rumored petition drive to hold a referendum on the districting plan either failed or never got off the ground in the first place; unfortunately I don’t have the time to search through the Columbia Flier microfilm archives to determine exactly what happened (or didn’t, as the case may be).

As the Columbia Flier story notes, the districting plan was passed by the council as a bill, not as a resolution (as originally recommended by the solicitor Timothy Welsh), which is why there was a possibility of overturning it via a referendum in the first place. (The council wanted the plan passed as a bill in order to make it part of the Howard County Code, and Welsh deemed that an acceptable alternative.)↩

  1. For those interested in the gory details, the January 9, 1986, issue of the Columbia Flier includes a detailed text description of the district boundaries; see the story Here are district boundaries on pp. 20-21.↩