County Council likely to make changes to redistricting plan

A proposal to redraw Howard County Council districts — supported by the County's Democratic Central Committee but opposed by the council's lone Republican — will undergo some changes, council members said.

The map would move some residents in Ellicott City from Councilwoman Courtney Watson's district to neighboring District 2, represented by Council Chairman Calvin Ball, a move that drew criticism from residents. The plan would also shift the Dorsey Hall neighborhood from Mary Kay Sigaty's district in Columbia to Watson's.

Residents from the Wheatfield and Brampton Hills neighborhoods in Ellicott City dominated the council meeting last week on the changes. They aired their frustrations with the plan to shift them into Ball's district, which they feel would split their community.

Many expressed concerns over being separated from the Long Gate Shopping Center, the Ellicott City Volunteer Fire Department, and their neighbors. Some also complained about moving to District 2, which includes Columbia; they said that it has different neighborhood concerns than Ellicott City.

Watson and Ball questioned several residents who testified about how they would be hurt by having two council members serving their community's interests.

"It is a positive to have an area represented by more than one council member," Watson said. "That gives that neighborhood more influence."

Many of the residents, who wore red to the meeting, said they were unaware of redistricting plans until they received a flier at their homes that alerted them to the new map.

Ball and Watson asked to see a copy of the flier, but none of the residents appeared to have one with them.

Watson said after the meeting that the flier seemed to be directed at the Wheatfield neighborhood. "You have to wonder who did it," she said.

Still, Watson said she understood the concerns of those residents.

"One of the reasons that Wheatfield and Brampton Hills feel so strongly is they feel they have a history of feeling moved around. It's on a border of Ellicott City," Watson said after the hearing. "I completely understand that. And I think they also made a decent case."

Watson, who represents Ellicott City and Elkridge, is from a swing district where voters have elected both Democrats and Republicans in recent years. But in the latest election, Ball, Jen Terrasa and Mary Kay Sigaty won by comfortable margins, and Democrats now hold four of five seats.

David Marker, a member of the seven-member commission that proposed the map, spoke at the public hearing in support of the plan. He said the decision to move Wheatfield was to keep the number consistent.

But Councilman Greg Fox, a Republican, drilled Marker about the selection of the map, which he argued moved too many residents unnecessarily, including those from Wheatfield, when some of the other plans considered by the panel didn't. The committee had four Democrats and three Republicans.

Following the meeting, Fox said he would push for a variation of a plan he has proposed, or a similar plan proposed but not selected by the commission..

His proposal would add some of his constituents to Terrasa's district, which covers Savage-Guilford. His map would also move some of Watson's district to Ball's.

"I don't necessarily think it should be what I proposed," Fox said, adding, "I hope a compromise can be developed amongst the council."

But Michael C.A. McPherson, chairman of the Howard County Democratic Central Committee, said Fox's plan aimed at helping his own party.

"Even though an independent citizen panel drew the plan, it's still a political document," McPherson said of redistricting maps.

He said the central committee supports the plan and will encourage the council's four Democrats to support it as well.

"The commission's plan represents the interests of both parties," he said. He added that he felt the plan would maintain the number of Democrats on the council, but said the council "could be five members," given the number of registered democrats in the county

"Just the sheer number could guarantee a five member council," he said.

Another area that drew some contention was the Dorsey Hall neighborhood. It was put into Sigaty's district 10 years ago because it was thought the community, which is under Columbia Association governance, would have more in common with the other CA villages.

"Personally, I don't see how things have changed. They are still a CA village," Sigaty said.

Watson said she had heard differently from residents in that neighborhood who commented that, historically, the neighborhood was part of District 1.

Sigaty said she thought the plan would likely be changed given that, historically, most proposals were changed before being adopted.

"It's really just at the beginning of the process," she said.

The council has until May 15 to draft legislation to adopt a new map. If it takes no action, the commission's recommendation will be the final map.

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