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Judge denies Harford Co. Democrats' redistricting challenge

A circuit judge threw out a lawsuit Wednesday from Harford County Democrats who are challenging the makeup of the all-Republican commission drawing new County Council district lines.

Judge John F. Fader II said the suit essentially asked him to legislate a change to the county charter, which Democrats believe is written in a way that unfairly led to their exclusion from the redistricting commission.

"You're asking me to make new law," Fader said in court. "I'm not willing to do that."

He offered to help expedite an appeal to the Maryland Court of Appeals before the three-member commission delivers its recommendation Oct. 15. The council, which has ultimate authority to reset districts, will have 75 days from then to redraw the lines for six districts. The council president runs at large.

Democrats had disputed a County Council decision that excludes them from the process that will determine voting districts for the next decade — a move that would help solidify recent Republican dominance in Harford. Democrats asked the court to block any plan submitted by the redistricting commission.

Acting on legal advice that determined that they were following Harford's charter, the Republican-controlled County Council voted Feb. 15 to seat three Republicans on the commission that will use 2010 census figures to redraw districts. The three members have held several public meetings and are working to meet the deadline.

The county charter says the commission should include two members of each political party that polled 15 percent of the total vote for council seats in the previous year's election. The charter allows the council to appoint one additional member. Democrats, who have seen their support decline in Harford County over the past decade, still account for 41 percent of registered voters, but the party did not field candidates for council president or for three of the six council seats. They polled less than 12 percent. The council pared the redistricting commission to three members and Democrats declined the council offer to appoint one member from their party.

Wendy Sawyer, chairwoman of Harford's Democratic Central Committee, said she would appeal the decision.

"The judge encouraged us to appeal," Sawyer said after the hearing. "He has offered to expedite it for us because he knows we are under the gun with the deadline. He made it plain that he understands our plight but he is constrained from making a new law."

Democrats argue that votes for the council president, who runs at large and was unopposed in 2010, should have been considered separately when percentages were determined. If that had been the case, Democrats would have polled nearly 22 percent in the six district races.

Scott DeLong, chairman of the county Republican Central Committee, said Democrats are trying to win representation by rewriting the county charter.

"The judge's ruling is based on plain English in the charter," he said. "Too many people are trying to re-arrange the language to suit their personal crusades."

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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