A history of Howard County Council redistricting, part 19

6 minute read

In part 18 of this series Republicans overcame the disadvantage imposed on them by the recently-adopted redistricting plan and gained a majority on the county council in the general election of 1994. We now review how the council tried to avoid a replay of the redistricting battle of 1991-1993:

July 1996. The Howard County Council considers a proposal to establish a separate commission to devise council redistricting plans, as opposed to having the council create plans itself. The proposal envisions a seven-member commission with three members appointed by the Democratic and Republican Central Committees and a tie-breaker member appointed by the council. The commission’s plan would be presented to the council, which could adopt it as-is, modify it, or create a new plan; however the commission plan would automatically go into effect in the event of a council stalemate.

The council seems generally receptive to the proposal. Although the charter review commission recommends against the proposal, its chair Thomas Meachum supports it as providing an alternative to potential deadlock and making the process less partisan: It doesn’t remove, but it dilutes the political aspects of redistricting. And in any case, as Kenneth Stevens notes in testimony before the council, You’d have to bring in aliens from outer space to get politics out of the process.

The council approves placing the redistricting commission question on the November ballot as a county charter change for the voters to consider. However council Democrats C. Vernon Gray and Mary Lorsung torpedo other proposed charter changes, denying council Republicans the 4-1 majority needed to place the changes on the ballot. One item shot down is a proposal by Darrel Drown to increase from 10,000 to 20,000 the number of signatures required to put the termination of Howard County’s charter status to a referendum; Mary Lorsung claims, If the government of the county were in such bad shape that you could get 10,000 signatures, then things are in bad enough shape to go out and get the opinion of [voters].1

(Craig Timberg, Redistricting commission wins support, Baltimore Sun, July 16, 1996, 1B; Craig Timberg, Council Democrats stymie the GOP, Baltimore Sun, July 26, 1996, 1B.)

October 1996. The Baltimore Sun urges Howard County voters to reject the redistricting commission proposal (Question B) for not meeting the goal of getting politics out of redistricting: The commission would be just as political as the County Council, which now draws the lines. … The proposal, Question B, falsely gives an impression of removing politics from redistricting. Voters should reject it … The Sun recommends approval of the other twelve proposed charter changes, including one to make all pronouns in the charter gender-neutral.

(Ballot questions, Baltimore Sun, October 30, 1996, 20A.)

November 1996. Former council candidate John Taylor joins the Baltimore Sun in urging rejection of Question B, the redistricting commission proposal; Taylor objects to the provision disallowing any voter referendum on redistricting plans: There is an ominous trend lately in some quarters to attempt to eliminate or restrict the right of we the people to participate in major decisions that affect us all. Tom Flynn, a member of the charter review commission, calls attention to the fact (not specifically mentioned in materials provided to voters) that the members of the redistricting commission will not be independent citizens but rather will be picked by the two major parties: By defining the members of the commission on political grounds, you really cut out a lot of qualified people.

Ignoring the various concerns expressed, Howard County voters vote yes on Question B and establishment of the redistricting commission; they reject four of the other proposed changes, including (by an 84% majority) one which would have corrected a typographical error and changed the term Appeal Boards to Board of Appeals. However the voters do support making the charter gender-neutral.2

The section of the county charter dealing with council district boundaries is changed to read as follows:3

The Council shall appoint, by resolution, not later than April 1 of the year after each decennial census date, a Councilmanic Redistricting Commission. The Central Committee of each political party which polled at least twenty-five per centum of the total vote cast for all the candidates for the Office of County Executive in the last preceding general election shall nominate three persons to serve on the Commission. The Council shall appoint all such nominees as members of the Commission as well as one additional member of the Commission. The Council shall appoint the Chairperson of the Commission from among the Commission members. No person shall be eligible for appointment to the Commission who holds elective office. By October 15 of the year in which the Commission is appointed, the Commission shall prepare a plan of Councilmanic Districts and shall present that plan to the Council. Within thirty days after receiving the plan of the Commission, the Council shall hold a public hearing on the plan. If by March 15 of the year following submission of the plan, no ordinance re-establishing the boundaries of the Councilmanic Districts has been enacted, then the plan as submitted by the Commission shall become law. 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. Any ordinance establishing Councilmanic Districts shall be exempt from referendum. The Board of Supervisors of Elections shall take any necessary steps to implement any such revisions of the Councilmanic District Boundaries so adopted.

(Dan Morse, Charter changes to face voters, Baltimore Sun, November 4, 1996, 1B; Dan Morse, 9 county charter changes approved, Baltimore Sun, November 6, 1996, 5B; Dan Morse, Correct a typo? No way, voters say, Baltimore Sun, November 7, 1996, 1B; Howard County Charter, Article II, Section 202, paragraph f.1)

In part 20 of this series we’ll see which party gained control of the council in 1998 and thus positioned itself to more effectively influence the work of the redistricting commission for the post-2000 redistricting effort.

  1. See part 1 of this series for more information on Howard County’s adoption of the original county charter. If voters were ever to reject Howard County’s charter status then presumably it would revert to being governed by county commissioners lacking any real legislative authority, as was the case prior to the 1960s.↩

  2. Unfortunately neither the Howard County Board of Elections nor the Maryland State Board of Elections appear to have published online the vote totals for the various Howard County charter questions in 1996. If anyone knows of an online source for this information please leave a comment.↩

  3. The language quoted is from the current copy of the charter. The annotations to the online version of the charter note that An amendment to [section] 202(f)1. proposed by Res. No. 112, 1996 was approved at an election held on Nov. 5, 1996, and became effective Dec. 5, 1996. This refers to the change adopted by the approval of Question B in 1996.

Also note that strictly speaking the membership of the redistricting commission is not restricted to the Democratic and Republican parties; if by some means a third party were to poll at least 25% of the vote in the county executive race then it also would gain the right to appoint three members of the commission, which would then expand to ten members (three per party plus one appointed by the council).↩