District ambitions remain on hold

Assembly must OK 5-member plan before candidates can run

Haines wants to make vote countywide

September 11, 2005|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Carroll's redistricting committee has carved the county into five commissioner districts, paving the way for expanding the three-member board by two.

But those interested in the jobs will have to wait for approval from the General Assembly before they can file and campaign for office.

Candidates face several other issues: the possibility of the primary being moved from September to June; the lack of a residency requirement in the county election law; and a push by the leader of the county legislative delegation to make the election countywide.

The expansion of the Board of Commissioners comes as a result of a 2004 referendum that called for the election of five commissioners by district. The current commissioners appointed a committee that created a map placing towns with common interests together, melding two major growth areas and keeping the Westminster environs as a single jurisdiction.

Each district is likely to draw numerous candidates for county commissioner. In fact, several commissioner hopefuls have tried to file with the county Board of Elections only to be told they must wait.

"The districts are not set in stone yet," said Patricia K. Matsko, director of Carroll's elections board. "We have had candidates who want to file, but we can't let them, until the districts become law."

A potential candidate can file a statement of organization and establish a committee to raise and spend funds on his or her behalf, said Jared DeMarinis, director of candidacy and campaign finance at the Maryland State Board of Elections.

"It does not have to be election-specific for a particular office," DeMarinis said. "It simply becomes a campaign finance account for that candidate."

Preparation could be key, should the legislature act on a proposal to move the primary to June, a timetable that would leave candidates even less time to raise funds or campaign.

"The change in primary date would be a big complication," said Joseph M. Getty, redistricting committee member and director of policy for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

The local statute for electing commissioners, which dates to the county's 19th-century founding, specifies the number of commissioners but not where they live.

"There is not an explicit residency requirement, but obviously that was the legislative intent," Getty said. "The redistricting committee has recommended that the delegation consider this requirement. Otherwise, candidates could forum-shop for the district most likely to elect."

Robert A. Zarnoch, assistant attorney general and counsel to the General Assembly, said the district map would take effect "the moment the governor signs it." His advice to the delegation is to submit the bill as an emergency measure at the beginning of the session.

"The first step here is the most important step," he said.

Changing the way the commissioners are elected is complicated. But Sen. Larry E. Haines, who heads Carroll's all-Republican delegation, wants to amend the bill so that commissioner candidates would run from a district but be elected by voters across the county.

The attorney general has said Haines' proposal to make the election countywide would not have to go to referendum.

Haines said he can support the district map, but people want to vote for all five commissioners regardless of district.

"We can still vote for all five, who would each represent a single district," he said. "I know the ballot question said election by district, but there is a movement out there to have them elected at large."

Haines will schedule a public hearing on his proposal, but his mail shows that many are in favor of it, he said.

"People feel they are losing their voting power," Haines said. "Voters have contacted me to say they want the commissioners elected at large like they always have been."

Redistricting committee members said Haines' proposal runs counter to what voters said in the referendum.

Janet B. Jump, who led the seven-member committee, said Haines represents only one area, and that the county has voted for election by district.

"A commissioner will have power within the district," Jump said. "Each district has a different personality with different needs. We are not a cookie-cutter county. This map recognizes that."

Her committee colleagues were more critical.

"Does he want to overturn an election?" asked Thomas V. McCarron, committee member.

Martin Radinsky asked, "Would Haines want to run statewide for his Senate seat?"

Commissioner Dean L. Minnich, who has yet to say whether he will seek a second term, commended Haines for raising the issue.

"From what I have heard, I believe people thought that they were voting for a package of five, not just one commissioner," Minnich said. "This proposal is certainly something to discuss. But we all need to be careful not to mind-read too much."

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