Worcester Co. to appeal orders on election system

October 21, 1994|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Eastern Shore Bureau of The Sun

EASTON -- Worcester County officials will appeal to the Supreme Court federal orders that the county establish a new way of electing commissioners to foster chances of blacks making political gains.

The decision to appeal, made Tuesday behind closed doors in Snow Hill, prompted the state NAACP's leader to say he will asks members of his organization to boycott Ocean City businesses next Memorial Day. He will make his appeal at the group's annual conference, which starts tonight at the Solomons Holiday Inn in Calvert County.

"This is probably the No. 1 issue for the convention," said Gregory Wims, president of the state National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "The only controversy we have is the Worcester County case."

Mr. Wims predicted unanimous endorsement of a resolution asking all NAACP members, labor groups and ethnic organizations in Maryland not to patronize Ocean City on Memorial Day, traditional start of the vacation season. He said the boycott could cost the resort -- which is the county's economic base -- millions in lost revenues.

But political leaders at the county level and in the resort town quickly responded, saying they believe that the threat of economic reprisals will fail in bringing about political pressure to change the way Worcester elects its top leaders.

"This is a terrorist threat," said Commissioner John E. "Sonny" Bloxom, one of the county's leading opponents of changing the local election system to make it easier for minorities to win a seat on the commission.

"But they're not going to change even one of five county commissioner's minds on this," he said. "The only way they're going to win is in court or in an election under the old system."

In Ocean City, Mayor Roland "Fish" Powell said he does not intend to ask county officials to pull out of the lawsuit, adding that even if a boycott were to occur, its effect on business would be slight.

During a closed-door consultation with its attorney, the commission decided to appeal two separate rulings from federal judges that the election system violates the 1965 federal Voting Rights Act because it gives white voters an unfair advantage.

Blacks, who make up about 21 percent of the county's 35,000 residents, have never elected a minority candidate to office in Worcester's 252 years. A legal battle over whether the county's at-large election system should be changed has been waged in court for two years and has cost Worcester taxpayers about $438,000 in lawyers' fees.

The Supreme Court appeal could add $75,000 more in legal expenses, an expenditure that has outraged some county residents. But Mr. Bloxom, a Pocomoke City Republican, said he and the other commissioners have put principle above cost.

"To me, the money's not the issue," he said yesterday. "What would the plaintiffs say if we put in a minority district and a group of whites sued the county to get rid of it? How much would they want us to spend to defend their district?"

In the latest court action, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld last month a lower court ruling that Worcester's election system is illegal.

The judges postponed the county's election for commission seats this year and told local officials to devise a new election plan. But the commissioners opted to ask the country's highest court to hear the case. Meanwhile, current commissioners will hold their offices.

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