Work begins on making 5 districts

Panel changing political map in Carroll for commissioners

Voters decided in Nov. to expand board

March 06, 2005|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

A committee of seven will divide Carroll County into five commissioner districts while seeking public opinion and legal advice, gathering information from counties with similar redistricting issues and avoiding legal pitfalls.

During the initial meeting of the Commissioner Redistricting Committee, one member urged the panel to keep the process simple. Another said the board should contact Queen Anne's County officials about a recent redistricting effort.

A third said he had done all the work already.

Maurice "Ed" Wheatley presented his colleagues with a county map that he had color-coded into five districts of nearly equal population.

"I have put together a plan with districts that all fall within a 5 percent margin of error," Wheatley said as he handed out copies. "Tear it apart or do whatever you want with it."

Carroll voters decided in November to expand the board of commissioners from three members elected at large to five members elected by district. The present board appointed the seven-member panel - three Democrats, three Republicans and one nonpartisan representative from the Board of Elections - to draw the district lines.

The committee has until December to make its recommendations to the county's legislative delegation. The plan must win approval from the General Assembly during the 2006 session to give prospective commissioner candidates time to file for office and campaign before the general election later that year.

"Your main goal is to make a good district map," Frank Rammes of Finksburg told the committee. "There is no rush. Make sure you get the public behind you."

Members appointed Janet B. Jump, president of the county Board of Elections, as chairwoman and listened to legal advice from Robert A. Zarnoch, assistant attorney general and counsel to the Maryland General Assembly.

They glanced briefly at Wheatley's proposal.

"We should not be spinning out maps yet," said Thomas McCarron, committee member. "We should hear from the public first."

Committee member Martin Radinsky agreed. "If we draw the lines before public hearings, we will close ourselves off in the public's mind."

Carroll's 14 voting districts could provide a starting point for the committee, but members should avoid splitting precincts and preserve the core of the districts, Zarnoch said. Committee member David R. Peloquin said the group should review the voting districts and "just build contiguous blocks until we get to 30,000 for each district."

Even as the committee begins its work, a Westminster attorney is questioning the legality of the effort. Francis X. Walsh said the expansion question appeared on the ballot without a provision from the original legislative bill that called for staggering the commissioner terms.

"The attorney general removed the provision from the ballot ahead of the election, saying it was unconstitutional," Walsh said. "The amendment for staggering terms was important for the stability of government. An argument could be made that this question was void from the beginning because people voted on something that they are not getting."

Del. Donald B. Elliott, who drafted the original commissioner expansion bill, said he was not aware staggered terms were unconstitutional until just before the bill was signed. But the attorney general's office has assured him that "the provision is severable and does not affect the primary purposes of the legislation," he said.

Zarnoch said, "State law says commissioners run together every four years. I don't see any successful challenge."

Districts should be nearly equal in population. The committee will rely on 2000 census figures that show Carroll with nearly 151,000 residents. A recent county housing study says the county has grown by nearly 14,000 in the last five years.

"As long as you pay attention to population equality, your plan will be constitutional," Zarnoch said.

Joseph M. Getty, redistricting committee member and policy adviser to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., helped draw district lines in 1992, when Carroll was considering changing its commissioner government to charter. The measure failed then and again in 1998, but Getty still has maps from the effort. He passed those out.

"We are not starting from scratch," McCarron said. "We have charter maps we could run against current numbers and see if they balance."

The committee scheduled a public hearing for March 23. It will be at 7 p.m. in Room 003 of the County Office Building, 225 N. Center St., Westminster. Information: 410-386-2030.

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