Judges from the state's highest court adjourned yesterday without resolving Carroll County's political feud over how to elect commissioners this fall, signaling a reluctance to assume responsibilities assigned to the General Assembly.
Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell suggested that the county might have to maintain the status quo this fall and elect three commissioners at large to serve four-year terms until the General Assembly can reconsider election districts next year.
"The three were in place," Bell said. "Conditionally, the voters wanted five [commissioners], but that was conditional on something later happening. You've got a requirement that the General Assembly pass a statute adopting those boundaries. If that doesn't pass, then where are we?"
A ruling to keep the status quo would void the 2004 referendum where Carroll voters overwhelmingly approved increasing the Board of Commissioners from three to five members and electing them by district.
With the filing deadline for candidates a month away, the election has been uncertain since the General Assembly recessed in April without approving a map that would draw the boundaries of the five commissioner districts.
Under the commissioner form of government, the legislature must approve changes in local government, including the way that leaders are elected.
The case before the Court of Appeals involves a dispute over two district maps, one favored by the county's all-Republican delegation and the other backed by the current county commissioners, the mayors of the county's eight municipalities and many residents.
"Why is anyone but the General Assembly authorized to draw the districts?" said retired Judge John C. Eldridge, who sat in for Judge Glenn T. Harrell Jr. "And if it failed, why not go back to where it was?"
Eldridge sat on the bench in the 2002 redistricting case in which the court tossed out former Gov. Parris N. Glendening's legislative map as unconstitutional. The court ended up drawing the districts instead.
In the case before the court yesterday, two Carroll residents, one of them an official in Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration, asked the judges to overturn a lower court order. They want the court to implement the redistricting map backed by the county delegation.
"The delegation submitted that plan, and for political reasons it was turned down," said Donald Messenger, the attorney representing resident James Harris.
In late April, Harris and Joseph M. Getty, a policy director for Ehrlich, appealed a consent order in Carroll County Circuit Court that settled a lawsuit by directing that election officials use the second map.
The appeal was fast-tracked to the state's highest court.
Dana Lee Dembrow, a Sykesville resident and former Montgomery County delegate, had filed a lawsuit against the Board of Elections urging the board to implement a district and an agreement was implemented the same favoring the Option Two map. This led to the appeal by Harris and Getty.
Favors Option Two
Dembrow asked the court yesterday to uphold the agreement with the county's Board of Elections that allows the second districting map.
"Option One is the option the General Assembly refused to pass," Dembrow said. "Because it didn't pass is the very reason to start with Option Two, which was the preferred option of so many people."
Dembrow hopes that if the Court of Appeals doesn't rule on the case by July 3 - the filing deadline for commissioner candidates - the consent order with the county's Board of Elections will stand.
With the election process in limbo, several potential candidates have been reluctant to file, said Patricia K. Matsko, director of the county Board of Elections.
As of yesterday, nine candidates had filed, based on the Option Two map.
"I'm looking forward to whatever the results will be so we can continue to make our plans for the election," Matsko said yesterday outside the courtroom in Annapolis.
Harris, a retired landscape contractor from Westminster, said a court decision to maintain three commissioners at large could trigger a backlash.
"This is going to cause a big uproar," he said. "The court may try to find the middle ground, or this could turn into something real nasty.
"I thought this court could actually decide what the remedy would be, but I'm not sure that's the case at this point."