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Debate over Ellicott City neighborhoods heats up at council redistricting hearing

Accusations of gerrymandering, ignoring common interests and putting politics above community concerns highlighted a contentious debate this week on the proposed redrawing of County Council boundaries.

About 100 residents of the Wheatfield neighborhood and a half-dozen of the Brampton Hills neighborhood, both located in Ellicott City just north of Route 100, attended a County Council public hearing Monday, Nov. 7 to voice their opposition to the plan the county Redistricting Commission submitted to the council last month.

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"As you can see by the attendance here tonight, this issue is very important to our community," Brampton Hills resident Robert Callahan said. "In some cases, (the commission's plan) moves thousands of people out of one district, while moving thousands into that same district. This is gerrymandering."

In the plan, the Wheatfield and Brampton Hills neighborhoods move from District 1 to District 2, and District 1 gains the Columbia village of Dorsey's Search from District 4. Some Republicans contend the plan is an attempt by Democrats to make District 1 a safer district for their party by making it more heavily Democrat.

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The commission selected the plan on a 4-3 party-line vote, with the Democrats supporting it, Republicans opposing it. The plan would move nearly 26,000 residents — roughly 9 percent of the county's population — to a new district.

The council has until March 15 to approve a plan, or the commission's plan becomes law.

Democratic commission members Larry Walker and David Marker defended their plan at the hearing. They said the changes they made with regard to District 1 came after hearing from some Ellicott City residents at the commission's hearing in September that they did not want to be associated with Columbia.

"The level of fear of 'the other' was shocking to us," Marker said. "Clearly the best way to overcome such fear is to require people to work together. … We are all one county. This plan will require residents to learn about other communities."

Brampton Hills resident Neal Jarvis apologized for offending anyone with his previous comments to the commission, in which he said Columbia had become a "ghetto." But he repeated his same point, using different words.

"I am an Ellicott City person," Jarvis said. "I'm not a Columbia person. That's no discredit to Columbia."

Walker, the commission's chair, said one of the goals of the plan is to eliminate the division of Ellicott City and Columbia.

"We wanted to try to even out the responsibility for Columbia … and therefore show our community unity as opposed to separation," he said.

Councilman Greg Fox, a Fulton Republican who represents District 5, questioned Walker and Marker about whether their intention to promote unity was one of the redistricting goals outlined in the county charter. He then read the section of the charter that says: "Council districts should be compact, contiguous, substantially equal in population, and have common interest as a result of geography, occupation, history or existing boundaries."

Answering his own question, Fox noted: "It (the charter) doesn't say to try to spread things out and make things different."

Fox, who has suggested the only rationale for the commission's plan "is to try to have District 1 lean more Democrat," has created an alternative redistricting plan that would only move about 8,000 residents to a new district and would keep Wheatfield and Brampton Hills in District 1.

'Common interest' debated

In their testimony, Wheatfield residents homed in on the part of the charter that says council districts should have "common interest as a result of geography, occupation, history or existing boundaries."

Deborah Bures-Walker, who testified on behalf of the community, said "the commission's recommended map does not follow these guidelines." She explained that Wheatfield is located in the northeast part of the county and shares "common history and parallel concerns" with other District 1 residents. Other Wheatfield and Brampton Hills raised similar concerns.

Councilwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat who represents Wheatfield and Brampton Hills in District 1, told the residents their points were well-taken. But Watson and council Chairman Calvin Ball, who represents District 2, asked the residents several probing questions regarding their positions.

Ball asked Wheatfield resident James Weidemann if he felt his concerns wouldn't be heard if he lived in District 2.

Weidemann responded: "I know I would be heard, I just don't think I would be heard as loudly, as clearly."

After listening to Watson and Ball ask question after question of the residents, Fox said: "It's really the (redistricting) commission that needs to justify why they're making this change."

Watson said her questions don't mean she's leaning one way or the other.

"I want to examine the entire issue," she explained. "It's in my nature to ask a lot of questions."

If Watson's questions didn't indicate which way she was leaning, her comments did. At one point during the hearing, she asked council staff to look into the possibility of moving one of the two Ellicott City precincts north of Route 40 from District 1 to District 5 to enable the Wheatfield/Brampton Hills precinct to stay in District 1.

"Both of those precincts to me have commonality with their neighbors in the west," she said.

Watson also noted that she would lean toward keeping Dorsey's Search in District 1 because it has a lot in common with the Grey Rock community.

"I have to beg to differ from you on what Dorsey is thinking," said councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, the Columbia Democrat who currently represents Dorsey's Search in District 4. "They feel much more commonality with Columbia because they sit under the Columbia lien."

Whichever plan the council chooses, it's not likely it could be successfully challenged in court, according to a representative from the county Office of Law. Melissa Whipkey said courts do not strike down redistricting plans for considering social or political factors.

"I don't think there is a plan out there that would pass muster if that was the test," she said.

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