Highland Beach to study voting law ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY

July 15, 1993|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Staff Writer

The town of Highland Beach, a tiny, predominantly black enclave south of Annapolis, has agreed to work with the American Civil Liberties Union to give more voting power to people who actually live there.

Property owners in Highland Beach now can vote for the mayor and four commissioners whether they live there or not. The ACLU says that practice has been struck down by the federal courts because it unfairly dilutes the voting strength of town residents.

"We trust that Highland Beach officials will be amenable to revision of the Town's Charter and election procedures consistent with the requirements of the Constitution," Deborah A. Jeon, an ACLU staff attorney, wrote in a June 10 letter to town officials.

Ms. Jeon said she anticipates reaching an agreement with town officials by September that will require Highland Beach property owners to vote only once -- either where they live or in town elections.

"It's just not right to have two votes per person," she said.

The ACLU has asked several towns on Maryland's Eastern Shore to repeal laws that allow property owners to vote in local elections regardless of their principal residence because they weaken the voting strength of poor blacks and enhance the power of wealthy, nonresident property owners, most of whom are white.

It won agreements from the councils in Princess Anne and Pocomoke City to repeal such laws. And Fruitland, Centreville and Snow Hill have either abolished or are in the process of abolishing provisions for nonresident voting, the ACLU said.

But Ms. Jeon said that race is not an issue in the case of Highland Beach, which is celebrating its centennial.

About 70 percent of the town's registered voters are nonresidents, meaning disproportionate representation on the Board of Commissioners by people who don't live there, said Ms. Jeon, who works in Centreville.

For example, the mayor and two of the town's commissioners have their principal residences elsewhere, said Joseph Butcher, one of the commissioners who lives in Highland Beach.

He referred other questions to Mayor Daniel Nelson, who lives in Washington.

But Mayor Nelson refused to discuss the issue, saying it would be impossible for someone unfamiliar with the town to understand it.

Crystal Chissell, the town attorney, said town commissioners are working with the ACLU to come up with a solution.

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