State panel on districts closes doors Chairman cites political pressure


An article in The Sun Wednesday misidentified Benjamin L. Brown, chairman of the Governor's Redistricting Advisory Committee. He is a former Baltimore District Court judge.

The Sun regrets the errors.

The chairman of the Governor's Redistricting Advisory Committee said yesterday that the committee would make decisions on new congressional districts behind closed doors to avoid placing "pressure politically" on the five-member panel.

Former Baltimore Circuit Judge Benjamin L. Brown, who has lauded the once-a-decade effort as "democracy in action," decided to limit the committee's first working session yesterday to members and staff just as he raised the controversial question of redrawing the Maryland's eight congressional districts.

Terming the committee's decisions "very difficult," Mr. Brown said it would be "in the best interests of the citizens" that the deliberations be private. If the meetings were "thrashed out in the news media" it would "put greater pressure politically . . . on all members of the committee," he said.

An official with the state attorney general's office said the committee does not currently come under the state's open meeting law, although this year the legislature passed amendments to the law requiring that such committees meet in open session beginning next summer.

The chairman said only "certain decisions" would be made in the so-called executive session, although he declined to elaborate when pressed by a reporter.

One committee member, who requested anonymity, said after the meeting that the "key" to closing the doors was the sensitive decision the committee faces over how to create a majority-black district in the Washington suburbs, which both Republicans and Democrats say is necessary due to the sharp increase in black population.

The committee member said there is consensus among the members to create a majority-black district, although the boundaries have yet to be determined. Besides Prince George's County, that district could include Montgomery County or portions of Southern Maryland counties.

There also is agreement on the committee that a "safe seat" be created for Representative Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md.-5th, widely viewed as the state's most powerful congressman, whose district now includes Prince George's County.

But there is no committee agreement on the political sticking point that the majority-black district and the Hoyer district would create: Which two sitting congressmen will have to run in one district? "That's the major hurdle," said the member.

A majority of the state congressional delegation has advocated a plan that appears to pair Representative Tom McMillen, D-Md.-4th, with Representative Wayne T. Gilchrest, R-Md.-1st.

But Mr. McMillen is pushing a plan that would place Mr. Gilchrest and Representative Helen Delich Bentley, R-Md.-1st, together. The state Democratic Party has said it would devise a similar plan, pitting the two Republicans against each other, this week.

The committee member said Mr. Brown wanted to protect the committee from lobbying by state lawmakers and congressmen, many of whom already have started calling and writing to push their cases.

Five more working sessions are planned by the committee, which is expected to come up with a plan -- or plans -- by Aug. 27. In September the legislature will vote on the new district lines, which will be used in the primary next March.

No vote was taken yesterday to go behind closed doors, and none of the members objected to the move. The executive session lasted about an hour.

A spokesman for Gov. William Donald Schaefer said the committee does not come under the state's open meeting law because it was created by "executive letter" and not through legislation or executive order.

"That's legally correct," said Jack Schwartz of the Maryland attorney general's office. "They are not governed by the open meeting law. They had the legal right to close the meeting."

Next July such committees will have to hold their meetings in public as long as they have at least two members from outside state government, said Mr. Schwartz.

The five-member panel, in addition to Mr. Brown, consists of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., Norman M. Glasgow Sr. and Donna M. Felling. It has held 13 public hearings throughout the state and more than 1,000 Maryland residents have testified. The turnout led Mr. Brown to label the process "democracy in action."

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