Harford council redistricting plan keeps Havre de Grace and Aberdeen separate, Abingdon divided

Voters in the Churchville, Level and Darlington areas could soon be in new councilmanic districts, if the Harford County Council accepts the redistricting recommendations presented at Tuesday's council meeting.

The most significant change in the recommendation from the three-member redistricting commission, which released its final plan Tuesday, would essentially swap parts of current districts E and F on the county's eastern half.

The proposed realignment from the commission would still keep three districts that are dominated by the municipalities of Havre de Grace, Aberdeen and Bel Air and three others dominated by the northern tier, greater Fallston and the Joppatowne-Edgewood area. Once again, the Abingdon area will be split among other districts, rather than having a single district of its own.

Redistricting Commission members Chris Pate, Jason Gallion and Ben Lloyd said the best alternative would combine precincts in Havre de Grace, Level, Darlington and Churchville into District F, and precincts in the Aberdeen Proving Ground, Perryman, Aberdeen and Riverside areas into District E.

The recommended plan would greatly shrink the current District D, representing the county's northern swath, and would ultimately move 21 voting precincts around the couunty into different districts from where they are currently.

Despite that downside, Pate explained the commission still felt its recommended plan is the best of all possible alternatives.

The recommended plan best groups communities of common interest, including school districts, best meets the requirements of compactness and contiguity and also meets a requirement that the districts be substantially equal in population, with a population deviation of less than 9 percent, according to the commission's report.

The group presented six possibilities to the council, and it suggested one that is closest to the current map and one with the smallest deviation in population from district to district.

Though the commission's recommendation does not create a Abingdon dominated district in the south central part of the county, despite the area's large population, the report says this alternative received consideration.

The report says creating a district specifically for Abingdon was "problematic," because it would "force one of the other six areas of the county to be divided and/or combined with other districts." The panel said the likely result of a creating an Abingdon district would be to either combine Aberdeen and Havre de Grace into a single district or to divide the northern Harford district in half, combining one half with a Fallston district and the other half with a Havre de Grace district.

"Also, due to its location between Bel Air, Fallston, Edgewood and Aberdeen, as well as the fact that it is made up of many relatively new subdivisions, defining 'Abingdon' is a difficult task," the commission wrote.

Councilman Dick Slutzky, a Republican representing the current Aberdeen and Churchville District E, questioned the recommendation, wondering why the council should consider changing 21 precincts and disrupt how voters are used to voting.

He said he would like to see the map stay similar to its current delineation.

"I am concerned with the concept of how you determined which communities are similar," Slutzky, whose district would be one of the two most affected, told the group. "I would consider Havre de Grace and Aberdeen, being sister communities, having a lot in common… Of course that violates the rule of having two municipalities in the same district."

Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti, a Democrat representing Havre de Grace, Riverside and part of Abingdon District F, the other district most affected, pointed out, however, that keeping Aberdeen, Bel Air and Havre de Grace in separate districts does not appear to be an actual rule of law, just a convention.

"It's just historically been the case that the three municipalities have been in separate districts and we decided to adhere to that," Pate said after Lisanti raised the issue.

Lisanti said that issue always comes up with redistricting and she would like to consult with legal counsel about keeping Havre de Grace and Aberdeen apart.

Council president Billy Boniface also asked if the group considered the existing community councils which also cover defined geographic areas of the county.

"One of my concerns with your recommendations, since I am from that area, is you divide the Dublin/Darlington area into two districts [D and F]," Boniface said. The two communities are next to each other and share the same postal ZIP.

Pate said community councils were considered, but there were a number of factors, including school districts, that also came into play. By 2014, one member of the county school board will be elected from each of the six county council districts.

"In any of these alternatives, we had to balance a number of factors," Pate said.

Slutzky added that the existence of magnet schools in the county did not seem to have been a consideration.

"It doesn't seem that you considered… the fact that we have several magnet programs and students are moving considerably throughout the county," Slutzky said.

Nevertheless, the council thanked the commission for meeting throughout the summer and putting hard work into the report.

A public hearing on the commission's report is set for Oct. 11 at 6:30 p.m.

According to the County Charter, "If within 70 calendar days following presentation of the Commission's plan no other law establishing or re-establishing the boundaries of the council districts has been enacted, then the plan, as submitted, shall become law."

This story has been corrected and updated from an earlier version.

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