Political districts board favored

Independent commission should make decisions, study panel recommends

Complaints in Balto. County

March 14, 2002|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

A panel studying Baltimore County's redistricting process is recommending that the county's political districts be drawn by an independent commission, in response to complaints that the public was shut out when redistricting decisions were made last spring.

The six-member study panel said yesterday that a new board should be created and given 13 months to redesign the county's political districts every 10 years.

The commission would conduct political studies, draft recommended districts, hold preliminary hearings and present drafts to the County Council.

"The finality rests with the council," said John Donaho of Reisterstown.

From five to 15 members

But the six-member redistricting panel, while agreeing that a new board should be created, couldn't agree on the size of the new commission.

Members recommended from five to 15 people.

The commission to study redistricting was formed by the County Council after residents complained about last year's redistricting process.

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 two hours before the meeting.

Angry residents said the process shut out the public, protected incumbents and split their communities.

Towson was split among three districts in the original plan but mostly reunited in the final version.

Charter requirements

The County 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 is no requirement for public input and no mechanism for veto or renewal.

Commission members wrestled yesterday with how members would be appointed to the new panel.

"What I've heard people say is take the politics out of the process," said Bert Booth of Lutherville, a former state delegate. "You can't do that, it's inherently political."

A deadline of May 1

The commission has until May 1 to finalize its recommendations before presenting them to the council. It will hold a public hearing at 7:30 p.m. March 25 in the Council Chambers.

The council then would vote on whether to present the proposal to the voters this fall.

Yesterday, members spent some of their time discussing a rival redistricting proposal being put forth by state Dels. A. Wade Kach and James F. Ports Jr., both county Republicans.

Under their proposal, a 14-member independent commission would be created. Any new redistricting plan would require a two-thirds majority vote of the board.

Push for referendum

The two men have moved to put their proposal on a public referendum in November. Issues can be put on the ballot by gathering 10,000 voter signatures or gaining five of seven council member votes.

If the redistricting commission's plan is approved by the council, and Kach and Ports are successful in getting their proposal on the ballot, voters might be facing two choices on how the county should draw its political maps.

"That would be a terrible problem," said commission Chairman John V. Murphy. "But we may have that problem."

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