The Baltimore County Council redrew its councilmanic boundaries last night by splitting Essex right down the middle -- putting an end to one political battle and setting the stage for another.
Councilman Donald Mason, D-7th, won the five votes needed to pull most of Essex out of the 5th District and make it part of his Dundalk-based district, which had lost population since 1980.
But a group of political leaders says it plans to begin efforts to increase the number of council seats from seven to nine -- the start of another political battle that would force the council to redraw the lines again in two years.
Mr. Mason's plan adds about 14,000 residents to his shrinking district by tacking on to it the communities that lie southwest of Rossville Boulevard, Stemmers Run Road and much of Back River Neck Road -- essentially the heart of Essex. The new lines will be effective for the 1994 election, but current council boundaries will remain in effect until then.
Mr. Mason said Essex and Dundalk are ideological twins cut from the same blue-collar fabric, sharing the same environmental and socioeconomic problems, geographical borders and history. "Both communities have older town centers with aging infrastructures," Mr. Mason said. "They have the same interests and the same problems."
The plan passed despite opposition from numerous Essex community associations, as well as the Baltimore County Chamber of Commerce, the Essex-Middle River Chamber of Commerce, the Essex Development Corp. and the county councilman representing Essex.
Councilman Vincent Gardina, D-5th, said that the three Republican council members who backed Mr. Mason supported the measure mainly because the plan will break up a traditionally Democratic stronghold. The measure passed 5-2 with Mr. Gardina and Councilman Melvin Mintz, D-2nd, voting against it.
"I think the Republicans have succeeded in splitting a Democratic stronghold in Essex, and they've done it at the expense of the community," he said.
Mr. Gardina gave a stinging criticism of Mr. Mason's plan, saying at last night's council meeting that "politics of the worst kind was played during this 1991 redistricting."
He told the council that his problems with the Republican Party began after he won the 1990 primary.
"The Republican Party, the party of Watergate and Willie Horton, saw an opportunity to attack my good name. And guess what? The people of the 5th District wouldn't buy it," he said.
Other opponents also said the plan dilutes their political clout and means less effective representation.
"We're very disappointed," said Norbert Anderson, president of the Turkey Point Improvement Association. "This splits Essex right down the center."
Mr. Anderson, who described himself as "non-political," said sharing a district with Dundalk will mean a council member less interested in Essex because it makes up only a small part of his district.
"You're not going to be as interested in the problems of Essex if it's just a small portion of what elected you," he said.
The council was forced to come up with a redistricting plan so thateach of the county's seven councilmanic districts would have about 99,000 residents. The 1990 census revealed Baltimore County's population had jumped from 655,615 in 1980 to 692,134.
Mr. Mason's 7th District, locked in by water on three sides and centered on the economically depressed community of Dundalk, fell to 85,262, so it had to pick up roughly 14,000 residents. Mr. Mason said that his plan achieves that, giving his district a population base of 99,427.
But it also sparked a storm of protests -- with opponents writing hundreds of letters to council members, holding at least one rally to muster support and coming out to testify at a public hearing last month at Loch Raven High School.
But the plan also may become little more than a footnote in the county's political history if a petition drive launched this week is successful in expanding the number of councilmanic districts to nine. Such an expansion will force the boundaries to be redrawn.
Delegate E. Farrell Maddox, D-6th, said he will work with Harold Gordon, who ran unsuccessfully for County Council in 1990, to gather 10,000 signatures on a petition to put a question on the November 1992 ballot asking for voter approval to increase the council to nine members.
Mr. Gordon and other black political leaders on the county's west side say they want the council expanded to ensure the election of a black council member. The county has 85,451 blacks, but all seven council members are white.
Mr. Maddox said last night that the expansion is a necessity because of population growth since the Baltimore County Charter set up the seven council seats in 1956.
He said, "We're looking to upgrade our council, make it more effective and give better representation to the people of Baltimore County."