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In Baltimore County, signs of progress

The spirited opposition at a recent public hearing on Baltimore County's council redistricting plan requires a bit of context. When Baltimore County attempted to redraw its council district lines after the census 10 years ago, it sparked a popular revolt. Communities from one end of the county to the other were upset by how they had been split apart and yoked together in unfamiliar configurations that, community group leaders assumed, would result in poor representation in Towson. They saw a process decided by a self-interested cabal on the council who used the new maps to protect their incumbency — and in one case, punish those they didn't like. Voters raised such a stink that the county's political leaders floated no fewer than five separate ideas for reforming the process, one of which was eventually put on the ballot and adopted as a charter amendment.

Despite the recent complaints, it is hard to view the new process as anything but a success. Communities that had been split among multiple council districts before, such as Parkville and Perry Hall, are reunited under the new map. The east side waterfront communities are grouped more rationally, and the rural north county remains in one district. Moreover, with the task of drawing the new maps falling to an appointed commission rather than the council itself, there have been fewer complaints about backroom dealing and overt politicking. The new map does favor the incumbents in the sense that none of them would be forced to run against each other in the new districts, but it is not overly partisan in that the Democratic majority on the commission did not attempt to pit the council's two Republicans against each other, which would have been easy to do.

The Loch Hill community has objected to being moved out of the district that includes Towson and into one centered more on the Essex/Middle River area, but the most fervent dispute centers on just one precinct, 1-001, which contains the Social Security Administration and an enterprise zone where the county has granted tax breaks to attract new businesses. As important as those concerns are to the communities involved, they represent a tiny fraction of a very large county. And ironically enough, the legacy of the disputed redistricting of 2001 should give those communities some confidence that changing an imaginary line on a map will have much less impact on them than they may now imagine.

The objections to the change for the Woodlawn precinct, in particular, have verged on the hysterical. Woodlawn community and business leaders have complained that including the precinct in the Catonsville-centered 1st District instead of the Randallstown-centered 4th District, which includes the rest of Woodlawn, would somehow hinder local revitalization efforts. To hear them talk, you'd think the Social Security Administration and the enterprise zone were being physically moved to another part of the county, rather than merely being represented by a different councilman.

There is a racial component to the dispute. The 4th District was created in 2001 with the express intent of fostering the election of the first African-American councilman, which happened in 2002. The 1st District, with this change, would be about 30 percent black and would be represented by a white incumbent, diminishing the odds that the residents there would be represented by a racial minority in the near future. Still, in the grand scheme of things, the change would do nothing to diminish the likelihood that the 4th District will still elect a black representative, and depending on population trends, it could eventually help make the 1st more competitive for a black candidate.

The reason that the lines had to change at all is that the 1st District has significantly fewer people than the ideal number for a council district and, thus, had to incorporate new precincts. Because of its geography — it is bordered on three sides by Anne Arundel and Howard counties and Baltimore City — it had only one place to go, and that was the 4th District. Including precinct 1-001 makes for a nice, even borderline between the two districts and brings the 1st up to almost exactly the right number of voters.

Some opponents of the move have objected that, as a consequence, the 4th District will be the county's smallest. This represents an emotional reaction to the redistricting process, not a rational one. Under the commission's plan, all of the districts, including the 4th, will be within the legally acceptable variance for district size — plus or minus 5 percent. And it's not as if having a district with a slightly larger population provides any additional clout or guarantees additional tax dollars are spent in the community. If anything, it's theoretically better from a voter's perspective to have fewer people per representative. It gives them marginally more say in the selection of their council member (though the differences in this case are too minuscule to matter in practice).

Any residents of precinct 1-001 who are worried that they will be ignored as part of a Catonsville-centered district should take some solace in what has happened to Towson during the last 10 years. Before the 2001 redistricting, it was part of a district that followed the York Road corridor, including Lutherville and Timonium. That roughly mirrored the geography of the state legislative district lines and corresponded with the umbrella of community associations that represented the area. But in 2001, Towson was cut off from those north-of-the-Beltway communities and linked to Perry Hall, far to the east. Towson residents felt they were losing some of their identity for the sake of power politics — the move forced a showdown between then-councilmen Vincent J. Gardina, a Democrat who was unpopular with his colleagues, and Wayne Skinner, a Republican.

Mr. Skinner lost in the primary and Mr. Gardina, who is from Perry Hall, won in the general election. After he retired from the council, he was replaced by another Perry Hall resident, Republican David Marks. Yet after a decade of being represented by councilmen from another community, Towson residents raised nary a peep during this year's redistricting. They did not press for a change from their current district, which looks like an elongated barbell. In fact, theirs is the district Loch Hill residents want to rejoin. If anything, the fact that Messrs. Gardina and Marks come from a different community has only made them pay more attention to Towson.

Woodlawn residents should also take solace in the fact that, come what may, they have had and will continue to have more say in the process than they would have without the reforms the county enacted in 2002. The redistricting commission held three public hearings before it drew up its maps. One of the members of the commission sided with those who want to keep precinct 1-001 in the 4th District; his objections and an analysis of the matter appear in the commission's final report to the council. And the councilman in the 4th District, Kenneth N. Oliver, has vowed to propose an amendment to the map to keep 1-001 in his district, which is remarkable considering he actually lost that precinct in the closely fought primary for his seat in 2010.

It's virtually impossible to draw a legislative boundary map that makes everyone happy. All voters can ask for is a fair, open and transparent process, and Baltimore County's looks pretty good compared to the nakedly political redrawing of Maryland's congressional district lines that's going on right now. It may not be perfect, but it's progress.

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