Panels formed to discuss remapping

Baltimore County politicians revive talks on redistricting

Activists are wary

September 12, 2001|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Working independently, a handful of politicians are seeking to revive discussions over how Baltimore County redraws its County Council districts, a move greeted warily by community activists.

Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, the Perry Hall Democrat whose re-election chances were greatly complicated by redistricting, has formed a committee of academics and others to study redistricting changes.

Republican state Dels. A. Wade Kach and James F. Ports Jr., both of whom are considering runs for county offices next year, are coordinating a volunteer committee to discuss ways to change state and county redistricting procedures to give the public a greater role.

And Douglas B. Riley, a former councilman from Towson and a Republican candidate for county executive, is drafting amendments to the county charter that would expand the council to nine seats and change redistricting procedure. He said he will announce his proposals in a speech tomorrow.

The charter requires the county to redraw its district lines after every census, but unlike other Baltimore-area counties, the council is given complete control over the process. There are no requirements for public input and no mechanism for veto or review.

In May, five council members introduced a redistricting bill containing maps that the public had never seen and that the other two council members saw only hours before the meeting.

Although it was not required to, the council held two public hearings on its plan. Angry community leaders used those sessions to criticize what they saw as a closed-door process and promised to revisit the issue in the 2002 elections. Council members responded by altering the original plan.

Talking about reform in the context of a political campaign leaves some community activists skeptical about the prospects for meaningful change. Most of those working on plans or forming committees say they will put their personal interests aside. But the efforts are being coordinated by candidates for office, and that makes them suspect, said Vicki L. Almond, president of the Reis- terstown/Owings Mills/Glyndon Coordinating Council.

"In 2002, I don't think people are really going to remember this, unless those running against our current council keep it alive. Maybe they're doing that, but I'm not sure that's a good idea either," she said. "You have to keep it alive for the right reasons, not just to get elected. The process needs to be changed, but once you get elected, are you really going to follow through?"

Another possible drawback is that a proposal from any one group might not include everyone's views, said Anthony S. Fugett, president of the Baltimore County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The NAACP spoke out strongly against the way the County Council redrew its district lines and offered a highly detailed proposal of its own, much of which was eventually adopted. But Fugett said he had not heard of the three reform efforts.

"I would certainly hope that before anyone announced an amendment or some plans for amendments to the charter that we would be included in the discussion," he said.

Many of those who spoke out against the council's redistricting plan in June said the issue is still fresh in their minds, and they're looking for someone to follow through on the calls for reform.

Council Chairman Stephen G. Samuel Moxley promised on the night the new maps were approved that the council would form a commission to study possible redistricting changes after other jurisdictions, including the state, finish redrawing their maps.

That won't happen until late winter or early spring. Given the universal calls for thorough study, public input and careful drafting of any legislation or charter amendments, that's probably too late to get a proposal on the 2002 ballot.

Moxley said last week that it would be a mistake to move forward before seeing what other counties do.

"When we finished our process, everybody else's process looked great, but now, all of a sudden, there might be problems with the state's procedure, people are all up in arms about that. There have been some concerns in Annapolis and Anne Arundel [County] that hadn't come to light before," he said. "I hope we can learn from everybody's mistakes and also learn from the good things that we find."

Residents don't have to wait for the council to act - amendments to the county charter can be put on the ballot either by the vote of five of seven council members or by a petition with 10,000 signatures.

Proponents of change predict they could easily gather that many signatures, but no community groups have stepped forward with proposals. The issue requires more time and expertise than a community organization can give, said Tim H. Silcott, vice president of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations.

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