The Harford County Council voted 6-1 on Tuesday to approve the county redistricting map it proposed rather than the one created by the bipartisan redistricting commission.
The approved map has Havre de Grace and Aberdeen in separate districts, as they are now. The two municipalities had campaigned to be in one district. The redistricting commission agreed to that proposal. The County Council did not.
In response, the City of Havre de Grace filed suit Wednesday night against the county and council members saying the council violated Maryland’s open meeting law during redistricting deliberations.
Tuesday’s vote was preceded by a public hearing on the council district map.
Eighteen people spoke during the hearing — 14 of whom spoke in opposition to the council’s decision to disregard the commission’s map. Many accused the council of gerrymandering in order to protect the seats of incumbent council members who are running for reelection.
Many of those who voiced concerns live in District F, which contains Havre de Grace and Abingdon, but was reconfigured in the redistricting commission’s proposed map to include Aberdeen and Havre de Grace as part of the same district.
Councilmember Curtis Beulah, who represents District F, supported the council’s map.
“I’m the representative from District F, which everybody says is gerrymandered. And in my opinion? Eh. But legal definition? No,” Beulah said.
“Every citizen who wants my cell number has [it] and can call me 24/7 365. And I handle a ton of constituent issues on a weekly basis. There’s probably not a week go by that I don’t get two or three calls from Havre de Grace,” Beulah said.
Councilman Andre V. Johnson of District A was the only council member to vote against the bill, No. 21-025. He criticized other members of the council for making a move he said would undermine citizens’ trust in transparent decision-making and overall governance.
“The general public sees a problem; we institute a commission, and then we don’t take that commission’s recommendations,” Johnson said.
Havre de Grace Mayor William Martin was one of the residents who voiced opposition to the bill at the public hearing.
He told The Aegis: “If the framers of our county charter wished to grant the County Council sole authority to create their own redistricting map, then they would not have spelled out so specifically in Section 205 of the county charter how the process is to be established. The council’s disregard to the charter and the process should be of the utmost concern to all Harford County citizens.”
He added “The City of Havre de Grace takes great objection to the process the County Council followed in approving the new councilmanic district maps. We believe they should have started with the redistricting commission’s map, and then publicly amend it, should they have chosen to do so. Rather, they chose to ignore the commission’s map, and introduce their own, rendering the redistricting commission, and the entire process, meaningless.”
Council President Patrick Vincenti told The Aegis he is proud of the council’s work on the map, and the decision to approve it. His only goal with redistricting, he said, was to honor the process.
“I believe we did everything we could. Is it perfect? No, I’m sure it’s not. But is it the result of everyone doing their due diligence at this time? Yes,” Vincenti said.
In a news release Thursday, Havre De Grace announced it has filed suit against the Harford County government and members of the County Council over “violations of the Maryland Open Meetings Act and County Charter Section 205: Redistricting Procedure.”
The suit alleges the council violated multiple provisions of the Maryland Open Meetings Act when it “reportedly held secret meetings at the end of October to deliberate on a number of county council redistricting proposals” including 21-025.
The Maryland Open Meetings Act requires that when a quorum of a public body meets to consider or transact public business, officials must meet in public, give prior notice of the meeting, and publish an agenda. The law also requires public bodies to post meeting minutes after a meeting as soon as practicable.
The suit also asserts the council violated Section 205 of the county charter in ignoring the Harford County Redistricting Commission’s report. It cites as a precedent the 1974 Harford County v. Board of Supervisors of Elections of Harford County case heard by the Maryland Court of Appeals.
Vincenti and a representative of the county attorney’s office did not respond to requests for comment on the lawsuit.
In other news, Robert Wagner of District 5 was unanimously appointed vice president of the council for the term of December 2021 to December 2022. He was nominated by and succeeds council member Joseph Woods of District B.
Two people were appointed to the Traffic Safety Advisory Board; one new individual and three incumbents were unanimously appointed to the Social Services Advisory Board; and one person was appointed to the James V. “Capt’n Jim” McMahan Commission on Veterans Affairs.
The council introduced a resolution endorsing a loan of $450,000 from the Maryland Department of Commerce to Fanatics, Inc., for tenant improvements and materials for its proposed leased distribution facility in Aberdeen, as well as a Workplace Training Grant of up to $45,000 over three years from Harford County.
The council also introduced two resolutions related to bonds: one authorizes the issuance, sale, and delivery of bonds designated “Harford County, Maryland Consolidated Public Improvement Bonds, Series 2022A” by Harford County; the second does the same with bonds designated “Harford County, Maryland Refunding Bonds, Series 2022B.”
The council introduced a bill to formally recognize the sheriff’s department as the “Harford County Sheriff’s Office” for continuity’s sake.
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The council unanimously passed another bill as an emergency act to renew “a temporary moratorium on the application of certain provisions of the Harford County Zoning Code related to setbacks, parking requirements, temporary uses, signs, outdoor storage, and display and seating capacity with regard to uses that include nightclubs, bars, breweries and restaurants,” according to the fiscal note.