Border shifts for districts may be small

Council hoping for nonpartisan boundary changes

Growth even across county

Citizens commission to make suggestions

board has final say

Howard County

April 15, 2001|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Despite the political fuss over redrawing the boundaries of Howard County's five County Council districts, census figures show changes could be minor.

Growth has occurred fairly evenly across the county since 1990, the numbers reveal, and only two of the council districts - the 1st and the 3rd - are more than 5 percent above or below the new ideal size of 49,568 residents. That compares with council districts containing about 37,000 people each a decade ago, county planner Jeff Bronow said.

"I expect all the changes to be pretty minimal. I don't anticipate any dramatic shift," said Ellicott City Republican Christopher J. Merdon, a freshman council member who is planning to run for re-election to his 1st District seat.

State legislative districts could be more volatile because a small, centrally located county such as Howard is like a rowboat in a storm-tossed sea, buffeted by the partisan political winds of the major parties. Local officials are hoping for a relatively peaceful County Council redistricting process this year, compared with the two-year partisan battle that ended in court after the 1990 census.

A citizens commission will make recommendations to the Democrat-dominated council this time, though council members will have the final say. The commission is to be named next month, and it is expected to issue a report by mid-October.

Merdon's Ellicott City-Elkridge district has grown fastest - with 52,280 residents, according to the census, 5.5 percent over the ideal size. And the North Laurel-Savage district of Democrat Guy J. Guzzone has lagged most, with 44,843 residents - 9.5 percent below the ideal size.

Guzzone's 3rd District needs 4,725 more people to reach ideal size. Observers expect the district's boundary line to move north, farther into Columbia. That would help ensure that Guzzone's district would stay in Democrats' hands - ensuring the party's control of the County Council for another four years.

Guzzone said he isn't averse to that, especially because it also would allow Owen Brown village to be contained in one council district - Guzzone's - instead of being split between the 2nd and 3rd.

"It's a goal of the Owen Brown Village Association," he said, though the issue "cuts both ways." Sometimes, a community can do better by having two council members as advocates, he said.

Still, "it's nice to have one councilman for the whole village," said Jay Stearman, chairman of the Owen Brown Village Board.

Elkridge faces the possibility of being split as the council seeks ways of reducing the size of the 1st District.

Kevin Doyle, president of the Elkridge Community Association, said it is not the number of council members, but their responsiveness, that matters most to him.

"What you get [with a split community] is two council members, but two in which you are not a large part of their constituency," he said, adding that Elkridge feels well-represented now.

David Marker, a Democrat who has been designated chairman of the council's redistricting commission, said there could be boundary changes despite the districts' being close to their population goals.

"It's probably true that with smaller differences you need a good argument for changing [a line]. When there's a big difference [in population], everybody agrees there should be a change," he said. And though only the 1st and 3rd districts are beyond 5 percent of the ideal, "you can't trade among them without moving the 2nd or the 4th."

Politically, even Merdon concedes that with each party seemingly solidly in control of two council seats, Guzzone's district is the key to having a majority vote - and thus gaining political control of the council.

"I think the Democrats are pretty happy with the way the districts are now. They'll probably try to make Guy's a little more Democrat to solidify that for the majority," Merdon said.

Two districts - Republican Allan H. Kittleman's western county area and Democrat Mary C. Lorsung's west Columbia turf - are close to ideal size. Lorsung's 4th District is 784 people under and Kittleman's 5th District is 624 over - meaning both are 1.6 percent or less off the mark.

Democrat C. Vernon Gray's 2nd District, east Columbia-Jessup, is 4.4 percent over the ideal, with 2,175 too many residents, the figures show.

Officials believe that Gray's district will move north, losing part of Owen Brown to Guzzone but gaining part of Elkridge, even though Gray lost in 1998 in the three Elkridge precincts he represents. But Gray is not running for re-election next year, and he noted that he lost those three precincts by slim margins.

On the state level, county officials hope Howard will gain one or two seats in the House of Delegates because of population growth. At the same time, dominant state Democrats could force Howard's two Republican state senators to run in the same district.

The three legislative districts - 12th, 13th and 14th - that cover Howard are all over the ideal 112,000 population, by as much as 10,000 to 27,000 people. That means each must shrink, but statewide pressures leave the future of Howard County's influence in the General Assembly uncertain.

Howard County Council districts

Courts normally allow a tolerance of plus or minus 5 percent from the ideal population.

"Ideal"........... size.............49,568

District1......... 52,280....... over by 5.5 percent

District 2........ 51,743........over by 4.4 percent

District 3.........44,843........under by 9.5 percent

District 4.........48,784........under by 1.6 percent

District 5........ 50,192.........over by 1.3 percent

Population figures: 2000 Census

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