Feud delays redistricting commission


New census figures aren't out, but Howard County's politicians are feuding over who will draw new boundaries for County Council districts based on the new count.

Instead of what was supposed to be a routine vote last night to confirm a resolution creating a seven-member redistricting commission, the council split 2-2 along party lines, killing the measure.

Councilwoman Mary C. Lorsung, a west Columbia Democrat and the potential swing vote on the five-member council, was absent.

The council's action delays creation of the panel for two months.

"This is nothing more than blatant partisan game-playing," said Councilman C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat.

But the council's two Republicans denied the charge, claiming that their aim is a nonpartisan process.

"There's nothing partisan about it," said Councilman Allan H. Kittleman, a western county Republican.

The dispute became public after Kittleman and Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, failed in an effort to postpone voting on the resolution until next month, when Lorsung will be back from Europe.

The Republicans want to replace David Marker, the Democrat the majority party chose to head the commission, with Carole Conors, president of the county chapter of the League of Women Voters.

But Democrats characterized that idea as a clever GOP ploy to take away the political advantage that Democrats won at the polls in 1998 - the county executive's office and a 3-2 majority on the council.

Marker, a statistician who worked on council redistricting the last two decades, said: "It's an extremely partisan, good ploy by the Republicans to maximize their advantage."

If the Republicans succeed, he said, "it will definitely make it harder [for the commission] to work collegially."

It could also mean that with a less partisan chairman, the commission might recommend district boundaries friendlier to the GOP. That could make it harder for County Executive James N. Robey and the council's three Democrats to change the panel's recommendations and easier to elect more Republicans next year.

Marker said the delay would make the work harder, since a report to the council is due in October. Also, he noted, the county law creating the commission requires its appointment by April 1, which appears impossible.

To further complicate things, Conors said from home after the vote that she doesn't want to chair the commission, though she does want the league represented on it.

"I never envisioned me being chairman," she said.

Gray said that if the Republicans were so intent on including the league, they could have named a member as one of their three nominees.

Council Chairman Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, said the Republicans never asked for a work session to discuss the issue but forced Democrats' hand at the last minute.

Each party can name three commission members. The Democrat-controlled council is to choose the chairman, who has the deciding vote.

The commission is being used for the first time in Howard this year. It is seen as an alternative to a bitter two-year political battle over redistricting that ended in court after the 1990 census.

Redistricting is required after each census to make sure residents get equal representation. After the 1990 census, the five council districts were drawn to contain about 37,500 people each.

Current estimates are that each district should have close to 50,000 people because of growth.

Democrats control the two mostly Columbia districts and the one that covers the southeastern county. Republicans have the Ellicott City-Elkridge area, and the western county district.

The key in the struggle is Lorsung, who is angry that her party did not choose a woman for one of its three commission seats. One Republican nominee is female.

"There is clearly a lack of balance," Lorsung said last month when the nominees' names were revealed. "I could not in good conscience vote for that [group]."

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