Carroll to have at-large election

Elections board follows legal advice for proceeding without district map

April 18, 2006|By MARY GAIL HARE | MARY GAIL HARE,SUN REPORTER

Without a map defining five new commissioner districts, the Carroll County Board of Elections has opted to move forward with an at-large election this year, even though the decision could face a court challenge.

In fairness to candidates, whose July 3 filing deadline looms, there is little time to wait for a court to decide on five districts, officials said.

"We are accepting candidate filings at this office," Patricia K. Matsko, director of the county elections board, said yesterday. "We do this because it is important to let citizens who want to file know where they stand."

Candidates for the five Carroll County commissioner seats can file as early as today, but they will run at large, not by district as stipulated by a 2004 referendum that expanded the board from three to five members.

All three incumbents have said they intend to seek re-election. Because of the difficulties of a countywide campaign, an at-large election will likely reduce the number of challengers, the commissioners said yesterday.

"People have been figuring on a district campaign, and at large may not work for them," said Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge, who will seek a fifth term.

Commissioner Perry L. Jones Jr. said he intends to file today and set his campaign in motion.

"I have been waiting for an opinion," Jones said. "I expect a flock of candidates will be filing, but not as many as would have if this was a by-district election."

Gouge said she may wait to file, but she will begin campaigning.

"If this is challenged in court, we will need to know what happens and quickly," she said. "Anybody can file suit."

That includes the county, said Commissioner Dean L. Minnich.

He said he will make one more push for a by-district election because that would be in keeping with voters' wishes. He has asked the county attorney to review the feasibility of a lawsuit that would ask a Circuit Court judge to create a map.

"The effort to get a court decision on this issue is worth the try," Minnich said. "As an elected official, I will do whatever I can to get five districts, to get some map on the books. An at-large election is not what people voted for."

The referendum required a redistricting committee to establish a map that would eventually win approval from the General Assembly. Candidates could not officially campaign or raise funds, nor did they know exactly which area they would represent, until legislators approved a five-district map.

The legislative session ended April 10, but legislators failed to approve a map. The map bill made it through the House of Delegates but never came to a vote in the Senate.

The lack of a map threw Carroll's election into uncertainty last week and had county election officials seeking advice from their state counterparts. That advice was to rely on an official analysis of the situation from the state attorney general's office, Matsko said.

The analysis, by Maryland Assistant Attorney General Katherine Rowe, says the county cannot revert to the current system of three commissioners elected at large.

An at-large election for five commissioners seems more practical, although that would conflict with a 2004 referendum calling for five elected by district, Rowe said.

"Five commissioners are to be elected in the 2006 election," Rowe said yesterday. "Without a map, they would be elected at large and would serve four-year terms. Hopefully, by then, the county would have a map."

Matsko announced the decision yesterday to implement Rowe's advice.

If a court challenge succeeds, Matsko said, candidates could be placed in appropriate districts or could withdraw their names from the ballot.

A judge would not have to start from scratch; two map options exist. Both keep Westminster as one district. Option One, favored by the county delegation, splits Hampstead and Manchester and makes one district of South Carroll, the county's most populous area.

Option Two splits South Carroll, along Route 32, effectively giving the area two commissioners. Residents, as well as county and town officials, supported Option Two and lobbied the local legislators for it, but the delegation was not moved.

"Had our delegation been open to dialogue on this issue, we would have a map," Minnich said.

In 2002, 10 Republicans and three Democrats ran in the primary, with three from each party going on to the general election. This year, the top five from each party after the primary will vie for the seats in November.

Filing papers are available from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily at the Board of Elections, 224 N. Center St., Westminster. Information: 410-386-2080.

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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