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Aberdeen, Havre de Grace redistricting plan critiqued at Harford commission; cities invited to defend their plan

A member of the Harford County redistricting commission said Tuesday that a plan to place Aberdeen and Havre de Grace in the same council district has flaws and could be vulnerable to legal challenges.

A Republican member of the five-person commission, Wayne Goddard, said during a Tuesday commission meeting that he could envision a conflict of interest for a county council member elected to represent both the cities of Aberdeen and Havre de Grace.

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Beyond that, he said he did not want politicians to draw the boundaries and that the cities had not presented evidence their citizens actually want to be in the same council district — only the testimony of elected officials.

“I don’t think the proposal serves the benefit of the citizens,” Goddard said. “This is a fundamental shift.”

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Though Goddard panned the cities’ proposal to unite under one council district, he said he was willing to listen to arguments for it. Chair of the commission Mustafa Sidik said he could not discount testimony of the cities’ mayors and invited the cities to make a case for their map.

“If they don’t make a compelling case, then I will still not be decided,” Sidik said.

The county charter mandates that districts be reestablished every 10 years, and tasks a five-member commission of two Democrats, two Republicans and one unaffiliated voter to recommend a plan to the county council, which has final say on how the lines are drawn. The commission’s report is due by Oct. 1.

Aberdeen Mayor Patrick McGrady proposed this redrawn map of Harford's county council districts, including a district that lumps the cities of Aberdeen and Havre de Grace together.
Aberdeen Mayor Patrick McGrady proposed this redrawn map of Harford's county council districts, including a district that lumps the cities of Aberdeen and Havre de Grace together. (Courtesy City of Aberdeen)

Aberdeen and Havre de Grace submitted a map that would combine the cities into one district and make other changes to the council districts countywide. Commissioner Erik Robey, in turn, proposed a map that would put Havre de Grace in the county’s rural northern district and keep Aberdeen in another. Goddard’s plan suggested minor revisions to the map that would put all of Bel Air in one district.

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The commission will meet again on Wednesday to discuss the proposed maps and host a virtual town hall Thursday to hear from citizens.

Goddard said he could see possible conflicts of interest between the two municipalities arising if they were represented by a single member of the county council, particularly over funding for their respective areas. A representative caught between two competing interests could not effectively advocate for both, he reasoned.

But Jim Thornton, a Democrat on the commission, said that representatives at the state and congressional levels represent multiple cities and balance those interests. He also pointed out that some cities in other counties successfully share a political district.

“I do not think that is unreasonable to expect a council member to strike that balance that would serve both of the municipalities and their interests,” he said.

Goddard, who is trained as a lawyer, submitted a memorandum with more than 90 pages of exhibits to support his point that the cities’ map appears to violate the “due regard” clause of Maryland’s constitution, which requires that political districts give “due regard” to “natural boundaries and the boundaries of political subdivisions.”

Citing Maryland Court of Appeals cases in the memo, Goddard wrote the cities’ plan would be in violation of the Maryland constitution and could be open to a legal challenge. Perhaps the best thing to do, he said, is make minor changes to the current map. Substantive changes to the existing map could be disruptive to political boundaries that are already working for county residents, he reasoned.

“If nobody is feeling oppressed, why are we trying to stop the oppression,” he said.

While he did not specify the suspected political ends of the cities’ proposal, Goddard said the cities did not make a compelling case for why they should be in the same council district, and that he was suspicious of the request.

“It seemed to me that there was a lot of political motivations to it that, though I am not sophisticated enough to understand, there had to be some political benefit to it,” he said.

The commission’s attorney, Charles Kearney, said he was not aware of any cases in which Maryland’s appellate courts addressed two cities that want to be included in the same political district. Most such cases arise from redistricting at the state and congressional levels.

Sidik said that he had concerns with Goddard’s memorandum, but agreed that he raised important questions. He had to give weight to testimony from the mayors because they are elected to represent their citizens.

Aberdeen Mayor Patrick McGrady said more than 100 people across the county have signed a petition in support for the cities’ proposal on fairharford.com. He said the city will make its case to the redistricting commission, and the petition will be presented to them. While he disagreed with Goddard’s conclusions, he said he valued his perspective on the issue.

McGrady said redistricting is an inherently political process and pointed out that the elected county council ultimately decides how the districts will be drawn anyway. He said Aberdeen’s city attorney had looked over the resolution signaling the city’s support for its plan — a document which included its proposed map — and found no issues with it.

“I appreciate commissioner Goddard’s raising of this and I hope that we can work to a resolution on it,” he said.

Legislative liaison for Havre de Grace Adam Rybczynski said Havre de Grace’s city attorney will be at the commission’s Wednesday meeting to address the legal issue Goddard raised.

“Clearly it seems like we have a difference in opinion, but hopefully we can resolve it tomorrow evening,” he said.

Aberdeen and Havre de Grace argued their proposed map would give them a more consistent voice on the council. Mayor of Havre de Grace William Martin said citizens felt unheard in District F, which also encompasses Abingdon, Creswell, Cedarday, Riverside, Belcamp, Perryman and part of Aberdeen Proving Ground. Because those communities had different priorities and more residents, their concerns could weigh more heavily on the county council.

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