The three Democrats on the County Council voted Thursday to hire a $150-an-hour lawyer at county expense to help make sure their redistricting proposal will survive a court test from Republicans.
In all likelihood, the Democrats will choose Benjamin R. Civiletti, a prominent Baltimore lawyer and former U.S. attorney general in the Carter administration, to advise them.
Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd, told the council he had already spoken with Civiletti about becoming the council's adviser andthat Civiletti had agreed to charge $150 an hour "instead of his usual fee of $400 an hour," because he would be working with local government.
Although the other two council Democrats voted with Gray tohire a legal consultant, Shane Pendergrass, D-1st, said she wanted aday to think about whether to use "this particular lawyer."
Paul Farragut, D-4th, said that while Civiletti has "tremendous qualifications," he would like the council to interview Civiletti or any other potential adviser prior to hiring.
"On the surface, I am very impressed that a person of his ability would be willing to help us with the redistricting," he said.
Republican Charles C. Feaga of the 5thDistrict was not impressed. He said the whole idea of hiring a consultant is "really a waste of money."
"I'm really not impressed witha former attorney general," Feaga said, "and I am somewhat embarrassed that we might bring in someone who doesn't know the county."
The reason the council cannot get help from the county legal department, Gray said, is that the county's lawyers advise the county executive-- Republican Charles I. Ecker -- as well as the council.
"It maybe conceivable that (the council's new district map) may be litigated," Gray said.
"The Office of Law cannot be on both sides. We're going to need legal representation for the three Democrats to fend offthe Republicans."
Gray said the County Charter is vague about whether the executive can veto a redistricting bill, as well as whether redistricting should be done through a bill or a resolution.
In 1986, when districts were first created, the council did it both ways.
That year, an all-Democratic council, with Gray sitting as a member, voted, 4-1, in January to pass a bill creating districts. Afterward, however, there was talk the bill might be petitioned to referendumand decided by the voters.
Since a petitioned bill is shelved until after the next election, the council passed a resolution in February identical to the January districting bill. A resolution takes effect immediately and cannot be petitioned to referendum.
There was also talk that J. Hugh Nichols -- a twice-elected Democrat who joined the Republican Party shortly before the end of his term as county executive -- might veto the districting bill.
Instead, Nichols returned the bill unsigned, saying it would be "inappropriate and not in the public interest" for him to sign it.
He also said that signing the bill would "set a dangerous precedent," since the charter amendment requiring the council to create districts does not mention a role for the executive.
"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," Nichols said at the time.
Gray said he was concerned that Ecker, unlike Nichols, might choose to play a role, especially since Ecker already has sent the council a map showing the kind of new districting lines he would like to see drawn.
"The executive should not have a role," Gray said. "This is a partisan issue."
"Then why spend $150 an hour fooling us," retorted council member Darrel Drown, R-2nd. "Just show us your map and exclude us. "
Pendergrass, calling redistricting "clearly the most political issue ever dealt with on the council," told Drown that she for one would "like to know the rules before going into it" and that a consultant would help her learn them.
"There is great confidence in knowing how to swim beforeyou jump in the ocean," she said.
But not at government expense, Drown insisted. "We've got to get away from this big-spending mentality."
"When the Republicans take (the redistricting plan) to court,we'll see who's causing the government to spend big," Pendergrass shot back.
Although the council has yet to draw a line on a redistricting map, it plans to draft one by Sept. 5 and conduct a public hearing on it Sept. 11.
The final vote on the redistricting plan is set for Nov. 4.