Howard's Flawed Redistricting

December 01, 1992

Now that a state judge has thrown out a Howard County councilmanic redistricting plan, the county's top elected officials have to decide how far they want to go in their slugfest for County Council dominance. The underlying stakes are the same as in any battle over district boundaries: Which political party will gain the most.

In this case, Howard Democrats developed a plan that created the best opportunity for their party to hold onto its 3-2 majority on the council, despite growing GOP voter-registration gains.

Republicans, on the other hand, support a redistricting plan drawn up by County Executive Charles I. Ecker. That plan improves Republican chances of winning in District 1, where the council seat is currently held by Democrat Shane Pendergrass. A shift in the direction proposed by Mr. Ecker might open the door for a Republican council majority.

What's at legal issue here is the procedure used to approve the Democratic plan.

After failing to get a redistricting bill past an Ecker veto, the council voted 3-2, along party lines, to approve the Democratic plan by resolution, thus bypassing Mr. Ecker. Resolutions, unlike bills, cannot be vetoed by the executive.

Republicans promptly challenged the action in court and, so far, can claim victory.

Circuit Court Judge Cornelius F. Sybert Jr. declared the Democratic plan "constitutionally defective and invalid" because the redistricting would be neither administrative nor temporary in nature, a requirement for actions taken by resolution. The plan in question would be in effect for 10 years.

Democrats must decide now whether they want to appeal Judge Sybert's ruling. But in doing so, they must consider ramifications beyond the next election. An appeals court ruling supporting the Sybert verdict would throw into question the use of resolutions on other matters that are neither temporary nor administrative.

At the moment, no one is sure what issues would be affected. But such a court-mandated restriction could weaken Democrats by forcing many decisions to be made by bills, which would then be subject to veto by the county executive.

As long as Republicans control the executive's office, Democrats are unlikely to want to relinquish power in that way. But unless they compromise with the GOP on a redistricting plan, Democrats may have no choice but to risk losing far more in court than they hoped to gain.

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