Political Notebook: Howard charter review, redistricting groups forming

County Council to take action

February 04, 2011|By Larry Carson, The Baltimore Sun

Howard County Council members have been elected by district instead of at large since 1986, but some wonder whether districts might make members too parochial in their outlook, and the pending creation of a charter review commission could mean revisiting the issue.

Legislation creating the 15-member commission, required every eight years by the county charter, is set for introduction before the County Council on Feb. 7, along with other measures creating a seven-member councilmanic redistricting commission and an office of transportation. The transportation office is part of an effort to make the issue a higher priority in County Executive Ken Ulman's administration.

If approved by the council, the charter commission would include nine Democrats, four Republicans, one Green Party member and one unaffiliated person. Nominated are former County Executive Edward Cochran, former County Councilman Charles C. Feaga, former Robey administration aide and attorney Sang Oh and former Comcast executive Donna Richardson — the prospective chairwoman. Under the law, no more than 10 members may be from the same political party.

All the legislation is subject to a public hearing Feb. 22 and a vote March 7.

The election of council members by districts is drawing interest from several quarters.

"There was quite a bit of discussion about that" as part of the county's League of Women Voters program planning meetings, said League President Grace Kubofcik. League members talked about perhaps having a mixed council, with three members elected by district and two countywide, she said, though the group isn't pushing that idea. The county school board, with seven members, is elected countywide, as are court officials and the county executive.

For issues involving capital spending for new buildings, for example, district council members "tend to watch the need in a district" rather than taking a more general master planning approach. Still, she said, the current council has worked well together.

Councilwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, said she has also thought about the district system.

"Coming from the experience of serving on the countywide elected school board," Watson said, she thought the commission ought to at least look at how the election by districts has worked. Past recommendations that weren't accepted should also be re-examined, Watson said.

Charter discussions

Tax protester Pat Dornan wants to require four of the five council members to approve any tax increase instead of a simple majority of three — an idea brought up several times in the past but never placed on the ballot — and he wants the commission to examine the referendum petition process.

"We've been trying to get that on the ballot," Dornan said about the super-majority tax increase issue.

Despite a vigorous discussion of the referendum process in 2003, that issue didn't make the cut either, as the last commission made some technical word changes.

The charter commission's stated purpose is "to ensure the charter is clear in meaning, addresses the needs of contemporary government and remains a functional, working document," and several experienced observers don't feel there should be drastic changes.

"I think the charter has worked pretty well for this county over the years," said Cochran, who served on the school board in the 1960s and was on the first County Council in 1970 after enactment of home rule. Cochran was county executive from 1974 to 1978 and is Watson's father.

"There are all kinds of concerns that come up" during a charter review, Cochran said. "But usually there's not enough concern to make changes, and that's good," he added, "because it means things are working."

Feaga, who served 14 years on the council and ran for executive in 1998, said he's served on past charter commissions. "I actually think it needs very little change," he said.

Alice Giles, the 26-year-old Green Party member, who is also active in the League of Women Voters, said she has no specific agenda. "Generally I'm looking at long-term planning and sustainability," she said. She also hopes "to bring a slightly younger perspective" to the commission's work.

More political

Council redistricting is a more blatantly political process undertaken after each decade's census to realign political boundary lines to make sure each of the five districts has nearly the same population. Along the way, of course, the two major political parties battle for advantage. Each of the two major parties gets to pick three nominees, and the council, which is dominated by four Democrats, chooses the chairman.

"We want a fair process," said Cathy Hudson, president of the nonpartisan Howard County Citizens Association. Beyond that, she said, "we'll let the Democrats and Republicans duke it out."

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