Council district plans critiqued

All three proposals found lacking by speakers at hearing

September 16, 2001|By Larry Carson | By Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

All three proposals for redistricting the Howard County Council boundaries should be changed or tossed out, residents said at a sparsely attended public hearing last week.

The proposals are too partisan and the districts are too far from the ideal population, too odd-looking or too convoluted, the speakers charged.

"Good evening, gerrymanderers," said Libertarian council candidate David Margolis of Scaggsville, greeting the Democrats and Republicans on the council redistricting commission in Ellicott City's George Howard Building.

Only 14 people attended the hearing Thursday night and only nine spoke, but they ranged from Margolis to Sherman Howell, who represented the African-American Coalition of Howard County and bemoaned changes proposed to District 2 that would move the northern boundary closer to Ellicott City.

Howell said that might make it harder for an African-American candidate to succeed C. Vernon Gray, a five-term incumbent who is the council's only black member and is leaving next year.

"All of you have played political games," Margolis said. "Your arrogance has been on display from Day 1."

Louis M. Pope, chairman of the county Republican Party, criticized the 8 percent variation in population between districts in the Democratic plans, saying the totals of each district should remain as close as possible to the average of 49,568 residents.

He said District 5 in the western county is too far-flung under Democratic plans, which seek to pack most county Republicans into two districts to maximize Democrats' chances in the other three.

"I don't think this is the right thing to do. It's not what we [Republicans] would do," Pope said.

Two proposals have come from Democrats and one from Republicans. The GOP plan would push District 4, which now covers most of west Columbia, to the south and east - away from the planned town's Democratic voters and east of U.S. 29 all the way to North Laurel.

Neil Quinter, a Democrat on the commission, said later that the Republican plan isn't immune from criticism and "does violence" to several communities.

John Taylor of Highland complained that his area should be in the more rural District 5, not in Columbia-dominated District 4. With each district at about 50,000 people, it's time for the County Council to expand to seven, nine or even 11 members to "keep local representation local," he said.

Kirk Halpin, a Republican who plans to run for County Council in District 3, also criticized the numerical variations in the Democrats' proposed districts. "In the spirit of one man, one vote," he said, "I hoped we could get closer to 3 percent" of the average.

And Lynne Berlinger came on behalf of her St. John's Community Association to ask that her community be included in one district and not split between two.

Both Democratic plans would put Dorsey Hall back into a Columbia district and seek to unite communities such as Owen Brown in one district.

Priscilla M. Hart, who proposed one Democratic plan, said she tried to keep her districts compact, contiguous and closer to the numerical ideal, but added that she has no major objections to the other Democratic plan.

David Marker and Quinter, sponsors of the other Democratic plan, said it differs slightly from Hart's by extending District 1, now covering Ellicott City and Elkridge, farther west along the north side of Route 108.

The 2000 census showed a 32 percent increase in Howard County's population over the past decade. County Council district boundaries must be adjusted so that each district represents about the same number of residents.

Democrats want redistricting to help maintain their 3-2 dominance on the council, while Republicans hope to better their chances of winning a third seat.

The redistricting commission has a 4-3 Democratic majority, so chances are a Democratic proposal will be recommended to the full council after a commission work session Thursday.

The County Council has the final say on the new districts, and it doesn't have to abide by the commission's recommendation.

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