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Harford Dems won't appeal redistricting, look to charter change

Minority party, once dominant, left out on new County Council districts

By Mary Gail Hare, The Baltimore Sun

7:20 PM EDT, October 2, 2011

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Harford County Democrats have decided not to appeal a court decision and will remain shut out of the process that sets council district lines for the next decade. Instead, they are looking to a broad review of the county charter to help protect their party's interests in the future.

Democrats, who once dominated Harford, officially became the minority party last year. The party didn't field candidates in several Republican strongholds, and saw their share of the 2010 vote dip below 15 percent — the minimum eligibility standard for participation on the council redistricting commission.

The party still has more than 40 percent of registered voters, but was officially ineligible to join the process that will set boundaries for the six council seats for the next decade.

They protested at council meetings and filed a suit in Circuit Court. They lost in both attempts But the Republican-controlled County Council has appointed a bipartisan charter review board to amend Harford's charter to ensure equal representation in future redistricting efforts, and Democrats are counting the move as a victory.

"This review board will look at all the issues and the language that led us to file a court case," said Wendy Sawyer, chairwoman of the Harford County Democratic Central Committee. "We are sure they will do a thorough job, look at everything and facilitate a change. There are lots of ways to win in a bipartisan manner and that is what we have done."

The review will look at a charter provision, written originally to limit the influence of small, single-issue parties on redistricting. Council members from both parties acknowledged that the exclusion of Democrats was due to a quirk in county law but contended they had few options in shaping the redistricting committee. Democrats asked the court to block any plan submitted by the redistricting commission, but a judge ruled in July that the courts could not rewrite county law.

"The judge was bound by county law," said Councilman Dion Guthrie, one of two Democrats on the seven-member council. "The charter review board will look at this now. It's a much better option."

The judge offered to expedite an appeal, but Democrats ultimately declined, Sawyer said.

"It would have taken too long to get to court," she said. "The redistricting commission was already into the process and an appeal would have held everything up. An appeal would not be in the best interests of Harford voters."

In fact, the three-member commission has made its recommendations, well ahead of the Oct. 1 deadline, Guthrie said.

"It is an equitable guideline that we will have to tweak," he said.

Republican Councilman James V. McMahan said he can recall years when his party felt left out of the process.

"If it takes a charter review to address this issue, then let's do it with all fairness and transparency," McMahan said. "This is something we have to do in all fairness to all citizens of Harford."

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com