Council can't agree on districts Election board waiting for plan


Howard County Council members aren't having any better luck carving out district lines in private than they did in public.

The council turned to closed-door meetings, conversations and number-crunching after a judge declared their first plan invalid in November. That plan, favored by Democrats and opposed by Republicans, was illegal because it was passed by resolution instead of a bill, the judge ruled.

Council members are still at loggerheads -- and at the same place they were at the beginning of the process two years ago. Until boundaries are established, no one can file to run in next year's County Council election, and the election board cannot do its advance work.

"We are at a dead stop," waiting for the council to approve a districting plan, said Barbara W. Feaga, election board administrator. "It is holding up all our work. We can't make any plans."

When the process began, council members seemed to agree that the Columbia districts represented by C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd, and Paul R. Farragut, D-4th, would continue to favor Democrats. And the Ellicott City district represented by Darrel Drown, R-2nd, and the rural western district, represented by Charles C. Feaga, R-5th, would continue to favor Republicans.

The disputed turf was the district now represented by Shane Pendergrass, D-1st, the council chairwoman. It still is. Democrats want a veto-proof map that will give them an advantage there. Republicans want to dull that advantage.

"I think we're getting close," Mr. Drown said. "We're down to the last 500 voters. The battleground is Shane's district. They want to win, and we want to win. I'm hoping we can come up with something in the next couple of days."

Ms. Pendergrass said, "I continue to try to compromise and I assume they continue to try."

The latest argument centers on whether to move the portion of the village of Owen Brown represented by Mr. Gray into the district represented by Ms. Pendergrass. Republicans want to keep those voters in Mr. Gray's district.

Ms. Pendergrass says that the Democrats submitted the Owen Brown proposal to Republicans March 29 and are still waiting for a response.

Michael Deets, a Republican assisting Mr. Drown, sees it differently.

"The last I knew, we had come up with two different maps that we submitted to Shane," he said.

David Marker, a Democrat assisting Ms. Pendergrass, agrees with her that Republicans are holding up the process. "Waiting for the Republicans is like waiting for Godot," he said.

Mr. Drown, Ms. Pendergrass and the two party representatives first met behind closed doors in February to devise a compromise plan. Since then, each has been working alone to develop proposals and counterproposals.

Ms. Pendergrass shares GOP numbers with Mr. Marker, who analyses them and prepares a counterproposal that Ms. Pendergrass takes to Mr. Farragut and Mr. Gray before forwarding it to the Republicans.

Mr. Drown has Mr. Deets analyze Democratic figures and prepare a counteroffer that is shared with Mr. Feaga and Mr. Ecker before it is shown to the Democrats.

Once members finally agree on a compromise, the council will hold a public hearing on the proposal.

Mr. Drown said he hopes to finish the process before the council takes its vacation break in August. Ms. Pendergrass said she had hoped to have it wrapped up by now. The statewide filing deadline for all offices in the next election is July 5, 1994. Theoretically, the council would have until then to reach an accord. But the election board needs much more time than that, said Ms. Feaga.

The board has to compare district lines for council races with those for congressional and General Assembly races to determine how many precincts the county will have and how large they will be. If, for example, a council or congressional or General Assembly boundary cuts across an existing precinct, that precinct will have to be cut in half, Ms. Feaga said.

Working out the precinct numbers will take "close to a month," Ms. Feaga said. She estimates it will take another three months to get districting maps back from the printer once the bid has been awarded.

Ms. Feaga had put money in this fiscal year's election board budget to pay for the redistricting work, but expects to lose it. The fiscal year ends June 30, and there is no hope the council will agree on new districts by then.

By law, council candidates, on the day that they file, must reside in the district they intend to represent. Hopefuls can, however, form political committees with a chairman and treasurer and begin raising money.

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