The increasingly bitter political tug of war over Essex's fate in the redrawing of Baltimore County's seven councilmanic districts could boost chances for expanding the council to nine members.
At issue is whether Essex should remain in the 5th Councilmanic District, or be absorbed into the 7th District, which now contains only Dundalk, where the population has been decreasing.
The district lines must be adjusted to keep the districts' populations nearly numerically equal after population shifts revealed in last year's census.
Del. E. Farrell Maddox, D-Balto. Co., chairman of the county legislative delegation, said at a public hearing last night that if Essex is moved into the 7th District when the council votes on the plan next Monday, he will immediately begin a petition drive to amend the county charter so that it mandates nine districts.
Maddox's effort would greatly boost a similar petition drive planned by a group of black political leaders on the county's west side who also want the council expanded to nine districts to ensure the election of a black council member.
The drive by Maddox would also broaden support to get the expansion issue before the voters in the November 1992 general election and would vastly improve the chances for the ballot question at the polls because expansion could not then be seen solely as an attempt by blacks to gain power.
Maddox said he has the petition forms ready for printing. Only 10,000 signatures are needed before Aug. 10, 1992, to get a proposed charter change on the general election ballot.
Last night's redistricting hearing was held at Loch Raven Senior High School, near Towson. About 200 people attended. Most were there from Essex to oppose the plan to merge Essex and Dundalk into one district. Councilman Donald C. Mason, D-7th, author of the annexation plan, was booed loudly when the council was introduced. Several speakers from Rosedale, however, favored Mason's plan, saying it would be better that Essex, rather than Rosedale, be divided.
At yesterday afternoon's council work session, the Essex annexation plan caused several council members to argue publicly and fling charges at one another. Councilman William A. Howard, R-6th, a Mason ally, sparked the argument when he complained that Councilman Vincent Gardina, D-5th, had unfairly criticized him and Mason at a rally in Essex on July 8. Howard's district borders both the 5th and 7th districts and includes Fullerton, Overlea and Perry Hall.
He said people attended the rally organized by Gardina only because free beer was provided. He said people at the rally chanted that "Dundalk stinks" and charged that Gardina ridiculed his absence after having invited him only one day earlier. Copies of newspaper articles, letters and a transcript of a highly partisan speech Gardina made before an Essex Democratic club July 8 were distributed by Howard.
Gardina charged that the speech was secretly recorded without his knowledge, an indication of "the kind of integrity we're dealing with here."
In the speech, Gardina allegedly said, "Every Republican out there wants to stab us [Democrats] in the back."
Council Chairman Douglas B. Riley, R-4th, chastised Howard for making "personal attacks in this document. . . . I don't think it's acceptable. Let's not be reduced to petty attacks on each other." Then Gardina complained that he wanted to compromise but that Mason and Howard have refused.
Gardina contends that the Mason plan would split the area around the Essex business district away from the rest of the Back River Neck peninsula, breaking up what he claims is one contiguous community. He wants the boundaries of Mason's district moved northeasterly, along U.S. 40 into the Middle River-Rosedale area.
Mason insists that annexing Essex is only logical since it is closest to Dundalk, and would keep his district more compact. As the Dundalk area continues to lose population, he said, the 7th District will take the entire Back River Neck peninsula anyway, probably after the next census.
Mason complained that Gardina's supporters were spreading false rumors that should Mason's plan win, the Essex Senior Center on Dorsey Avenue would be closed, and that the word "Essex" would be wiped from the community.
The deciding vote on the Essex annexation plan appears to belong to Councilwoman Berchie Lee Manley, R-1st, of Catonsville, who said she still has not made up her mind.
The plan needs at least five votes for approval. Councilman Charles A. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-3rd, has said he will be the fifth vote for whichever side gets four in order to prevent a deadlock. The Mason plan seems to have the advantage, with three likely votes now.