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Howard blogger looks at history of redistricting

Ellicott City blogger Frank Hecker has spent countless hours researching and writing about the history of council redistricting in Howard County — a topic he acknowledges is somewhat eye-glazing.

"In and of itself, [redistricting] is not that interesting. What makes it interesting is it reflects the underlying politics in Howard County," Hecker, author of frankhecker.com, said Monday over hot chocolate at the Pottery Stop off U.S. 40.

Hecker, a sales engineer for a California-based cybersecurity company, spent three to four hours writing each of the more than 20 1,000-word blog posts, which garner between 50 and 100 views. He recently published his work in an eBook, "Dividing Howard: A History of County Council Redistricting in Howard County, Maryland."

The Montgomery County transplant said he began the redistricting posts on his blog to help learn the history of his adopted home. He started by reading old newspaper articles online.

"His blog has been a phenomenal resource," said Councilman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat who was the council chairman until this month. He credited the blog with helping the council avoid pitfalls as it prepares to approve a redistricting map.

"It was a real asset," Ball said. "It has been fascinating to go through the process while analyzing it over time to see how things unfold now."

Councilwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, said she has read all the installments on redistricting and agreed that the blog has been a resource for the council.

"He synthesizes it all into a story you can follow and understand," she said. "It's been fun to read the redistricting of the county in past years. It's fascinating to see how the county has evolved."

She added, "It definitely makes me feel that redistricting has been never easy."

Council members are expected to vote on a new district map in January, after a public hearing scheduled Monday at the George Howard Building in Ellicott City. Residents will be able to speak before the council on a map proposed by the redistricting commission.

The council chose seven members for an independent redistricting commission, which recommends a map that would make the five council districts equal in population after each Census.

At a previous public hearing in November, residents, mostly from the Wheatfield and Brampton Hills neighborhoods of Ellicott City, complained that the map the redistricting commission recommended would split their community between two districts. The council's lone Republican, Greg Fox, also raised concerns over the commission's map, arguing that it unfairly favors Democrats by helping them secure their four seats on the five-person council.

"The politics behind it is very interesting," Hecker said of the redistricting process. "It's a prism through which the politics of Howard County can be seen."

He had blogged on various items, including music, his weight loss and other interests, when he planned to write only four or five blog posts on redistricting. But soon after he began digging through the articles, he grew more interested in the way redistricting came to be. Before 1984, the Howard County Council was elected at-large. And before 1969, there was no council, but a Board of Commissioners.

Hecker said his research has led him to believe that Howard would most likely still be a Board of Commissioners-run county, like neighboring Carroll and Frederick counties, if it hadn't been or Columbia.

"It all comes back to Columbia," he said, adding that many of the county's Republicans and conservative Democrats feared that the heavily populated Columbia would cause local politics to be dominated by liberal Democrats drawn to the new town.

During redistricting, he said, "you tend to get a lot of complaints from Republicans" — that they are confined to District 5, and therefore to only one council seat. While Hecker said "they have a point," he added that they are not entirely blameless, arguing that many of the early district proponents were Republicans.

In addition to the Republican complaints, he said, the concerns among residents in Ellicott City who could be moved to District 2, which covers east Columbia, are also not new. Since the early 1970s, there has been a divide between Columbia and non-Columbia residents in local politics, he said.

Hecker's lengthy and detailed blog posts have earned him the respect of those in the Howard blogosphere, who tend to write on the more recent endeavors of the current councils.

"He's Howard County's historian," said Tom Coale, who regularly writes about local affairs on his own blog, HoCo Rising.

While Hecker's blog posts tend to be a chronological, straightforward history of Howard politics, he says he has developed a few opinions through the process.

He said he would support an at-large elected council because a council elected by district — though beneficial because residents are represented by those who live in their district — can lead to gerrymandering. A district system also confines a council member to one district and that representatives could become "less responsive," he said.

He said his argument applies to a recent debate about the school board, now elected at large, possibly going to a by-district system. Over the summer, County Executive Ken Ulman selected a commission to study the makeup of the school board to help create geographic and racial diversity.

A bill recommending changing the makeup of the school board was ultimately withdrawn.

While the school board has no African-American members, Hecker said he thought racial diversity in an at-large system can be achieved, noting that C. Vernon Gray, who is black and served five terms on the County Council, won his first council race in 1982 when the members were elected countywide.

Despite his arguments for a countywide election, Hecker said he's not expecting a major change in the council districts.

His book has sold eight copies. He said he didn't produce it for profit and decided to donate any proceeds to the local charity Voices for Children, which helps abused children in Howard County.

After a redistricting map is approved, he plans to continue to blog about local political affairs, depending on what interests him. He also encourages other local bloggers to write an eBook because they don't cost anything to produce and can be a valuable resource.

"It's a great way to preserve the history of the county and make it accessible," he said.

jkanderson@baltsun.com

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