Redistricting commission wins support Proposal would name citizen panel to help redraw political maps

Public hearing held

Backers say change aims to make process fairer, less partisan

July 16, 1996|By Craig Timberg | Craig Timberg,SUN STAFF

With a bitter redistricting battle still fresh in their memories, Howard County Council members favor creating a commission to help with the politically charged job of redrawing county election districts.

The issue is sensitive because moving the lines of election districts can make politicians or ruin them. It can even shift the balance of party power throughout the county.

At last night's County Council public hearing on the issue, speakers noted how inherently political redistricting -- and redistricting commissions -- can be.

"You'd have to bring in aliens from outer space to get politics out of the process," said Savage resident Kenneth A. Stevens. Creating a redistricting commission is one of 16 charter changes the council is considering. Those that win the support of four of the five council members will go to voters on the November ballot.

The council will make a final decision July 25 about which charter changes to put on the ballot.

On redistricting, council members envision a system in which a seven-person commission would recommend a new map of County Council districts once every 10 years, on the October after each census.

Council members would have until the following March to adopt that plan -- or some alternative they devise. If they failed, the commission's plan would become law.

"It's less political potentially, and it has finality and doesn't leave us in limbo," said Council Chairman Darrel E. Drown, an Ellicott City Republican, before the meeting.

The politics would come in the appointment of the commission members. Each party's central committee would select three members. The council -- or its controlling party, in practical terms -- would appoint the seventh member.

In the ensuing battles, that would give the council's majority party a trump card. They could negotiate secure in the knowledge that the backup plan was written by a commission their party controlled.

"It doesn't remove, but it dilutes the political aspects of redistricting," said Thomas Meachum, chairman of the Charter Review Commission. "It provides a fail-safe for a redistricting proposal to go through."

Meachum's commission recommended against the redistricting commission, but he was among a minority that favored it.

The redistricting commission plan enjoys wide support on the council. County Executive Charles I. Ecker, who does not have veto power over charter changes, supports it.

Speakers at last night's public hearing were generally supportive of the idea, but they objected to a provision that would make redistricting plans exempt from referendum.

"We believe in protecting the citizen voice to take action if the County Council passes a law it opposes," said Anita Iribe, past president of the League of Women Voters of Howard County.

John W. Taylor of Highland, a former council candidate, also urged the council to protect the right of voters to have referendums on redistricting plans.

"Of all the things to try to exempt," Taylor said, "redistricting should be the one thing the citizens have the final say about."

After the meeting, Drown said he hopes to exempt redistricting plans from referendum.

"If they don't like it, they can vote them [council members] out next time," he said.

The last time Howard County faced redistricting, after the 1990 census, council members spent two years fighting over the plan.

At the time, Democrats controlled the council by a 3-2 margin, but Ecker, a Republican, held veto power over bills passed by the council. The result was stalemate on the redistricting plans.

They settled the issue only after a long, costly court battle.

Pub Date: 7/16/96

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