Harford redistricting commission makes final choice

After months of deliberation, the Harford County Redistricting Commission finally settled Wednesday on a proposed map of new council district boundaries to recommend to the Harford County Council.

The final recommended map proposes mostly minor but also subtle changes for the boundaries of six county council districts, changes that will take effect in time for the next county election in 2014, depending on what actions the council itself may take on the commission's proposals.

The commission's final decision didn't come easily, as members Christopher Pate, Jason Gallion and Benjamin Lloyd spent the better part of nearly two hours Wednesday to narrow six maps down to one. Even six maps was better than the more than 20 they started with, commission members noted.

When they first narrowed the maps to six, they wanted to have several different scenarios from which to choose. They kept one map to show a Havre de Grace district with Level, Darlington and Churchville included, as well as one that combines Aberdeen, Aberdeen Proving Ground, Perryman and Riverside.

Much like it is now, they wanted a map to show a largely rural District D for the northern part of the county and another that shows the Abingdon area to the north of Interstate 95 as together as possible.

Finally, they wanted one to show the fewest changes to the current council district map.

The map they ultimately choose out of the six, coded 4F, combines several of these goals. It represents one of the more compact maps, Pate said after Wednesday's meeting, one which places Aberdeen with APG, Perryman and Riverside. Under the current alignment, Perryman, Riverside and APG are in a district with Havre de Grace.

The final map also keeps most of Abingdon north of I-95 together, puts Level and Darlington into the Havre de Grace district and keeps a largely rural District D. In keeping with Lloyd's suggestion at a previous meeting, this map also corresponds the most with high school districts in the county, although even then it is not perfect.

"When you have nine school districts and six council districts it's kind of hard to make everything perfect," Pate said.

Coming to terms with the fact that it wouldn't be "perfect," was something the three Republicans had to do. As Lloyd reiterated from a previous meeting, there were many things preventing them from creating the ideal map, not the least of which is that the panel could not split individual voting precincts between council districts.

"The way precincts are drawn is a major one," Lloyd said.

The redistricting commission is not allocated the responsibility of redrawing precincts; only the county election board can do that, but there have been past instances where the board has acquiesced to making precinct boundary changes to accommodate council redistricting.

Another issue the commission ran into was allocating the populations of various precincts, which are not at all even. The commission was charged by the council to create maps with no more than 10 percent deviation in population among the six districts.

Considering this, the commission members tried to map out which districts had been the fastest growing and from there, they tried to keep those at the lower end of the population baseline in preparation for future growth.

Gallion also brought up the various emergency organizations, such as local volunteer fire companies, and how they, too, can connect different communities, just as do schools.

This comment was appreciated by one of the few members of the public, Rev. Cordell Hunter, a member of the Harford Democratic State Central Committee, who attended the commission meetings.

Hunter said he was impressed by the professionalism shown by the commission and also with the emphasis on keeping communities together and not necessarily being dictated by political boundaries.

Earlier in the meeting, Pate briefly mentioned that even once the commission recommends a map, county council members may still find aspects they want to change. This, however, would not deter the commission members from picking their ideal map, he said.

"They [county council members] don't own the districts, people do," Gallion said, "so let's just do what's right for our reasoning.

With a final map in mind, the commission will next begin to work on the report they will submit to the county council prior to Oct. 1. Because the commission reports to the county council with the map, Lloyd said they would not release the final map or any of the proposed boundaries ahead of time.

The commission expects to present its recommendations to the Sept. 13 council session, Lloyd said. Although the commission finalized its map Wednesday, members said they will still hold their previously scheduled meetings Aug. 3 and 17 to further discuss the recommendations.

Lloyd, Pate and Gallion were selected for the commission by the county council, a moved that initially caused controversy because all three men are Republicans, as are five of the seven council members.

Because the Democrats' candidates for county council polled less than 15 percent of the total vote in last year's election, the council was not required under the county charter to appoint a Democrat to the commission. The Harford County Democratic Central Committee challenged that action in court.

Earlier Wednesday, Baltimore County Circuit Judge John F. Fader II denied the Harford Democrats' challenge, but did tell the committee it could appeal his decision, according to The Baltimore Sun.

Democratic Central Committee Chairman Wendy Sawyer was quoted by The Sun as saying she would appeal; however, Sawyer also attended Wednesday night's commission meeting where she had praise for Pate, Gallion and Lloyd.

Sawyer said she appreciated the commission's work, despite their political differences.

"In any event, I do appreciate what the three of you have done," she said. "[It is] through no fault of yours that the composition of the commission is what it is."

She and the three Republicans also appeared to agree the drawing of new district lines should not be political.

"In this, we should all be Harford County," Sawyer said.

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