The messy politics of redistricting in Baltimore County are leading to a turf war in Towson, as one councilman tries to build a record in a part of the county he's never represented.
The unwritten rule of the panel is known as "councilmanic privilege" - roughly translated as, "Thou shalt not interfere in others' districts." But Vincent J. Gardina, a Democrat who represented Perry Hall under the old district setup, will do just that today. He plans to introduce two bills dealing with the development of county jails, an issue of great importance in Towson. Because of last summer's redistricting, Towson would become part of Gardina's district if he chooses to run for re-election.
Other Towson-specific bills are in the works, he said.
"It would be preferable that we not have to do that, but the people need to realize that council people, if they're going to represent an area, have specific approaches to issues," said Gardina, who has not announced whether he will run for a fourth term. "When a problem can be resolved through the legislative process, I intend to use that."
People who were on the council the last time the lines were redrawn in 1991 say this sort of thing didn't happen then. But those changes were relatively minor and didn't pit one incumbent against another.
New boundaries put Gardina in the same district as Councilman Wayne M. Skinner, a Towson Republican. Skinner plans to officially declare his candidacy for re-election next month but has no legislation planned for Perry Hall.
Conceptually, Gardina's bills sound good, Skinner said. One would prevent the county from exempting itself from the development review process when it builds a jail, a landfill or an incinerator. The other would restrict jails to certain kinds of zoning.
But the details and politics of the proposals could pose problems, Skinner said, something he knows from dealing with the planned expansion of the Baltimore County Detention Center for a year-and-a-half.
"This may be his issue now, but I've seen what's going on and what works. Vince has not been in there," he said.
He also raised questions about the propriety of a letter Gardina sent to some county residents, saying it amounts to using public resources for political purposes.
Gardina sent a letter on County Council stationery to parents last month detailing improvements to the schools their children attend. In the letter, Gardina did not ask for money or votes and didn't claim credit for the improvements.
But some recipients said they can see no reason other than politics for the letter because it was sent not just to residents of his current district but to people who live in the district he would run in this fall.
Walter Hays, a parent, said he was upset because it was clearly a "political piece" on County Council letterhead and because Gardina got the mailing list from the middle school his daughter attends.
Baltimore County schools spokesman Charles A. Herndon confirmed that Gardina got the mailing lists from the school system. A copy of a request for the mailing lists shows one of Gardina's publicly paid assistants procured it. Under state law, a school is required to release the names and addresses of students upon request, Herndon said. The schools charge $100 for each school's list for processing costs.
Gardina said he doesn't think he did anything improper and added that he's been sending out similar letters since he was first elected in 1990. "I've never received a complaint about it," he said. "If there are any complaints being put forward, they're ... by people who have political reasons."
Skinner said he has heard about the letter from parents in the Towson area. He said the fact that Gardina used county letterhead and postage to send the letters seems improper.
"Did he do anything illegal? No. ... ," Skinner said. "I just don't think it's appropriate. I think it's an abuse of county funds."