Howard district plan is voided Republicans win suit

councilman to push appeal

November 10, 1992|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff Writer

A judge has thrown out the Howard County Council's new redistricting plan.

Circuit Judge Cornelius F. Sybert Jr. said the plan for the 1994 election is "constitutionally defective and invalid." He ordered the election board not to implement the plan.

The suit was brought by Republicans David P. Maier of Elkridge and Louis M. Pope of Laurel, who said council redistricting must be accomplished by a bill rather than by a resolution. The council adopted the new boundaries in a resolution passed last Dec. 2 by a 3-2 vote along party lines. A bill identical to the resolution had been vetoed by the county executive.

Bills are subject to a period of public hearings often lasting a month or more. Resolutions can be completed in one day, as was the council's districting measure.

Bills take effect 60 days after passage, can be vetoed by the county executive and can be challenged by voters. Challenged bills are put on hold until placed on the ballot and decided by the voters in the next election.

Resolutions take effect immediately, are immune to veto and are not subject to a voter challenge.

Council districts were first drawn in 1986, following voter approval of a districting charter amendment two years earlier. Before 1986, council members were elected at-large.

Although the county charter is silent on whether districting should be accomplished by bill or resolution, Thomas E. Lloyd, attorney for Mr. Maier and Mr. Pope, argued before Judge Sybert in August that the framers of the 1984 amendment meant for districting to be "as notorious as possible [in order] to get wide public input." The use of a resolution limits voter participation and denies voters due process, he argued.

Roger W. Titus, a Rockville attorney hired by the County Council, argued that since resolutions are used for temporary administrative measures, they are appropriate for redistricting that occurs every 10 years.

Judge Sybert disagreed, saying, "In the court's opinion, a redistricting plan that would be in effect for a decade is not temporary in character. Thus, the County Council can establish councilmanic districts by resolution only if redistricting is an administrative task."

Judge Sybert then ruled it was not an administrative task.

Council Chairman Paul R. Farragut, D-4th, said he would have to discuss Judge Sybert's decision with other council members before deciding what action to take. "The question of separation of powers is obviously very important to us," he said.

Councilman C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd, chief architect of the council redistricting, will push for an appeal. "We just have to appeal it, I think," Mr. Gray said. "I respectfully disagree" with Judge Sybert's findings.

Mr. Gray said the council uses resolutions for many things that are not temporary, such as road closings, metropolitan inclusions in the water and sewer district, and bond authorizations.

"I don't know if [Judge Sybert] looked at the entire legislative process," Mr. Gray said. "I would assume he looked at that and other matters. The proper action is for us to appeal to the next level. We have to uphold the prerogative and the right of council. The county executive has no role in a legislative function."

County Executive Charles I. Ecker, however, said, "As I interpret the charter, the county executive does have a role. That's the only reason I was glad to see it go to court. It's a good government issue -- there have to be checks and balances."

Mr. Lloyd had made the same point before Judge Sybert in August. If voters cannot appeal to the county executive -- "their at-large representative" -- to veto a districting plan, or if they cannot challenge a districting plan by placing it on the ballot, they are being denied their fundamental rights, he argued.

In 1986, when district lines were first drawn, the council enacted them with a bill, then followed a month later with a resolution. The resolution was passed in response to rumors that the bill might be petitioned to referendum.

Last year, the council again adopted its redistricting plan with a bill, voting 3-2 along party lines for a plan favored by council Democrats. When Mr. Ecker, a Republican, vetoed the bill, the council adopted its plan in a resolution, again by a 3-2 vote along party lines. Resolutions can pass by majority vote, but it takes four votes to override a veto.

Mr. Titus said he could not comment on the decision until he had a chance to review it and make a recommendation to the council. He and the council's lead attorney, former U.S. Attorney General General Benjamin R. Civiletti, have 30 days to file an appeal.

Mr. Civiletti usually charges $400 an hour but is billing the council $150 an hour. He had advised the council that redistricting could be accomplished with a resolution. Through May, the council had paid him $7,600 for his services.

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