Dueling plans may go to vote

In Baltimore County, 2 solutions to redistricting could both be approved

`It's up to the people'

Delegates petition to get draft on ballot

council set to back other proposal

May 13, 2002|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Five separate plans to change the way Baltimore County redraws its council districts have been winnowed to two. But neither plan's backers appear willing to compromise, which means voters could approve two different and contradictory changes to the charter in November.

One plan, drafted under the official auspices of a county-chartered committee, is finding widespread support among members of the County Council, who appear likely to introduce a bill to put it on November's ballot sometime in their next few meetings.

It includes the creation of a commission to hold public hearings and draft a proposal. But it has been criticized for not sufficiently taking the power of redistricting out of the hands of the politicians whose careers depend on where the lines are drawn.

The other plan, created in a series of public meetings during the fall organized by Republican Dels. A. Wade Kach and James F. Ports Jr., would create a commission and establish public hearings, but that's where the similarities end.

Their plan goes to great lengths to keep the process out of the hands of elected officials. But the plan is mocked by detractors for, among other things, stipulating that a coin toss could determine which map is presented to the public and is eventually adopted.

Last summer, when the County Council redrew its district maps to reflect new census data, residents from across the county, most notably those from Towson, protested the council's plan and the way it was drafted, accusing council members of protecting their incumbency at the expense of communities.

The council comprises five Democrats and two Republicans, but redistricting was not decided along party lines. Five incumbents, including one Republican, were protected in the process, while two, one from each party, were put in the same district.

Although the council changed the maps to make them more palatable to various communities, complaints that the process didn't allow sufficient public input persisted.

During the subsequent months, the idea of changing how redistricting is handled in the county charter became popular among politicians. By the time the council-sponsored redistricting commission began drafting its proposal, four others had surfaced, all affiliated with people running for office.

The backers of three of those proposals -- Councilman Vincent J. Gardina of Perry Hall and county executive candidates Douglas B. Riley and James T. Smith Jr. -- said they can support the committee's recommendation, with some reservations, and will not pursue a charter change on their own.

Kach and Ports, however, said they don't think the committee's proposal does enough to separate redistricting from politics, and they are attempting to get their proposal on the ballot through the petition process.

"Ultimately, it's up to the people," Ports said. "Whatever they come up with, I'll support."

Darlene M. Anderson, the acting supervisor of elections in Baltimore County and a longtime veteran of the office, said that if both proposals make it on the ballot, they would be treated as separate items. Rather than choosing between them, voters could vote for or against each one individually.

And if both passed?

"I don't really know," she said. "We've never had this happen before."

Assistant Attorney General Robert A. Zarnoch said similar things have happened in other jurisdictions, though not within the past 20 years. Neither the Maryland Constitution nor any statute addresses the issue, but he says he thinks the rule is that the proposal that garners the higher vote total prevails.

Ideally in these situations, Zarnoch said, one measure passes and the other fails.

In this case, that seems unlikely, Riley said. The proposals are different in significant, but technical, ways. Unless there is a large effort to educate the public on the distinctions, a voter, confronted with lengthy explanations on the ballot, would probably be inclined to vote for both or for neither, he said.

Confident about petition

Ports and Kach said they haven't counted their signatures but are confident they'll get the 10,000 they need to get their proposal on the ballot.

But they'll do it without the support of some of the people who helped draft it.

Although members of the Kach-Ports group voted painstakingly on dozens of issues related to redistricting in a series of four meetings, they never saw the final draft of the proposal before it was turned in to the board of elections as a petition.

Kach said it took so long to get the wording approved by the state and county that no time was left for another meeting.

Most of those interviewed from the group said they weren't concerned about that and would support the petition anyway. A few, however, said they won't.

Donna Spicer, a community activist from Loch Raven, said that when she saw the proposal in draft form, she objected that the Kach-Ports plan gives total decision-making authority to an appointed committee.

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