Court retains Carroll format

Commission elected at-large stays until altered by Assembly


A decision by the state's highest court to keep Carroll County's current government structure intact yesterday, despite the passage two years ago of a reform referendum, disappointed both sides that were involved in a lawsuit over how to carve the county into districts for this fall's election.

The Court of Appeals' one-page decision said that only the state legislature can establish boundaries for the five commissioner districts. As a result, three commissioners will be elected at large in November. The case before the Court of Appeals on Thursday involved a long-standing political feud over two proposed maps that were drawn to define five commissioner districts.

The county's delegation in Annapolis favored one map, while the other map was backed by the current commissioners, the mayors of Carroll's eight municipalities and by many residents.

"Certainly, it's frustrating," said Dana Lee Dembrow, a Sykesville resident and former Montgomery County delegate who filed a lawsuit against the county's Board of Elections for failing to enact election districts. "Carroll County is apparently the only county in the state that is unable to implement the will of the people to elect their county commissioners by district."

James Harris was one of two county residents to appeal a consent order from a Circuit Court judge to the appeals court. That agreement between Dembrow and the Board of Elections enacted the map backed by the commissioners and mayors.

Harris and Joseph Getty, a policy director for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., wanted the court to adopt the map, known as Option 1, pushed by Carroll's all-Republican delegation.

Yesterday, Harris blamed the county's minority Democrats for obstructing the process.

"I think there's going to be a lot of anger and probably a backlash, maybe against the delegation or the Democratic Central Committee," said Harris.

In 2004, Carroll voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum to increase the Board of Commissioners from three to five members to be elected by districts.

A committee appointed by the current commissioners recommended last year a map, known as Option 2, that split South Carroll into two districts. Option 1 created one district in populous South Carroll, while dividing the neighboring northern communities of Hampstead and Manchester.

The state court's decision caught Commissioner Dean L. Minnich by surprise.

"I don't think anybody thought that was going to happen," he said. "There was an expectation that either [Circuit Judge Michael M. Galloway] would be upheld or we'd have five commissioners elected at large."

He said the appeals court's decision gives incumbents -- including himself and Commissioners Julia Walsh Gouge and Perry L. Jones Jr. -- an advantage because they were elected at-large in 2002 and have countywide name recognition.

The ruling also gives the county "a second chance" to revisit and clear up lingering confusion about the redistricting effort, Minnich said.

"Considering all the confusion, the bickering and the court action, I think this gives voters a second chance to get what they want," he said. "This will give us time to go back and do it right."

Tony Roman, an adjunct political science professor at Carroll Community College, said he believes that county voters are frustrated with the legislature and Carroll's inability to enact its own laws.

"They see the frustration of having everyone else in the state determining our destiny," Roman said.

Assistant Attorney General William R. Varga said the court's decision should be binding for the November election.

"The only possible way to affect this election would be if the General Assembly called a special session this year and revisited it," Varga said. "As a practical matter, there really isn't time for that."

Sen. Larry E. Haines, leader of Carroll's delegation, said he wasn't shocked by the court's decision.

"But I thought the court would go with one of the plans," Haines said. "We did all that we possibly could. It's a catastrophic thing."

By late yesterday, nine candidates (all Republicans) had filed for commissioner. The filing deadline is July 3.

In the September primaries, the three highest-polling candidates from each party make it to the November ballot, said Patricia K. Matsko, director of the county Board of Elections.

Thirteen candidates filed in the 2002 election, 10 Republicans and three Democrats.

"I'm just glad that now we can continue forward with the election process," Matsko said.

The court's swift decision also pleased Jones, the county commissioner. Still, he said, voters might feel cheated by the results.

"They went to referendum and decided they wanted five commissioners," he said. "It's sad that a map couldn't be formed."

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