For Dundalk's new county councilman, Donald C. Mason, the decline in population in southeastern Baltimore County means one thing: Eventually, both Dundalk and Essex will be represented by one council member instead of two.
Mason and Councilman William A. Howard, R-6th, want to start making the change now.
Democrat Vincent Gardina, whose district core is Essex, on the other hand, is determined to make sure that "eventually" is at least 10 years from now, if ever.
The battle over Essex emerged as the hottest dispute among the seven county council members, five of them new, at their first discussion on redistricting yesterday.
A dispute between members Melvin Mintz, D-2nd, and Charles A. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-3rd, came in a distant second.
The council's schedule calls for a tentative redistricting plan to be introduced in July, a public hearing on July 30 and an Aug. 5 vote to set the district lines for the next decade.
The county has gained residents in the last 10 years, but its population centers have shifted.
According to the 1990 census, Dundalk lost 7,000 people and the growing 3rd District in the northern part of the county gained 13,000 people during the past 10 years. The 4th District in Towson is also now under-populated, compared to the district norm, while Catonsville's 1st District and Essex's 5th District are slightly over the ideal district population of 98,976.
The trick for the council is to create new districts with as close to similar populations as possible. Council legal adviser Thomas Peddicord said that a 10 percent spread between the district with the highest population and the one with the lowest is legally defensible, but a 5 percent spread would be easier to defend against a court challenge.
Black leaders in Mintz's 2nd District are already planning a petition drive to seek voter approval of more council districts to give a black representative a better chance of getting elected. Blacks now are a 40 percent minority in the 2nd District, which covers Pikesville and Randallstown.
At yesterday's meeting, Mason, D-7th, and Howard contended that, because Dundalk is likely to continue losing population, it makes sense to expand the district to the east and take most of old Essex away from Gardina's 5th District.
Gardina argued vehemently against that, noting that "Essex has always been a community." He said to split the Essex business district along Eastern Avenue away from the rest of the Back River Neck Peninsula would be wrong, and argued that the current boundary line is formed by several natural dividers, including a creek feeding Back River and the Windlass Freeway.
Gardina's suggestion was for Mason to take several precincts along Route 40 east from Howard's district, while he would give Howard a sliver of territory along Silver Spring Road, near White Marsh Mall.
Mintz, meanwhile, whose district is close enough to the ideal number to remain unchanged, wants to gain new territory in heavily Jewish areas of Greenspring and Caves valleys and perhaps drop a few precincts in black areas of Woodlawn in exchange.
Ruppersberger objected to Mintz's assertions that he has been doing constituent service for people in the wealthy suburbs he wants to acquire, even though they live in Ruppersberger's third district.
Council Chairman Douglas B. Riley, R-4th, presented a plan that he said sticks as close to current lines as possible, but would expand his own Towson district to cover the Mays Chapel and Riderwood areas just west of his current boundaries.
Under Howard's and Mason's plan, Howard's 6th District would also expand northward to take in more of the rural Jacksonville and Monkton areas.
Riley urged his colleagues to try to settle their differences peacefully during the next week or so, to avoid a "4-3 vote" and the lingering bitterness that might accompany an unresolved political dispute settled with a sharply split vote.