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Redistricting hearing in Baltimore County expected to be contentious

John Lee
The Historic Courthouse in Towson. Credit: John Lee

Baltimore County’s controversial plan to redraw its council districts heads to a public hearing next week. Critics of the proposed map contend it does not do enough to help minorities get elected to the seven-member council. There are also concerns that it divides Towson in two and it favors incumbents.

The proposed redistricting map would lock in the current four-to-three Democratic majority on the county council for the next 10 years, according to John Willis, a former Maryland secretary of state, and a longtime observer of elections.

“Incumbency is often the biggest motivating factor of the people who draw the lines,” Willis said.

Five of the seven council members have said they plan to run for reelection next year. A sixth, Republican David Marks, is still deciding.

First District Democratic Councilman Tom Quirk, who is not running again, agrees with Willis that the map would probably cement the four-to-three political split on the council for the next decade.

“The red districts, meaning the Republican districts become darker red, and the blue districts become darker blue.”

For example, Democratic Councilwoman Cathy Bevins’ district, the sixth, has been becoming more purple. In 2018, Bevins had the closest general election race among the council members, winning with 54% of the vote. The proposed map would shift the lines so the sixth picks up Democrats living in Towson.

The five members of the county redistricting commission drew the proposed council district lines. The members were chosen by the council and include, for example, a former aide to Councilwoman Bevins. She has said she didn’t provide input to the commission.

The proposed redistricting map has drawn the most heat for having only one majority Black district. That’s the same as the last redistricting plan passed a decade ago.

Justin Nalley, the public policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said, “We’re not seeing a change in looking at the districts over the past 10 years and reflective of what the county looks like.”

Baltimore County is now 30% Black. Non-whites make up 47% of the county’s population. However, six of the council’s seven members are white.

The ACLU, the Baltimore County NAACP and the Randallstown Branch of the NAACP want a second majority Black district created. The council would need to move thousands of Black voters out of the fourth district, which is more than 70% black, into an adjoining district. Nalley, with the ACLU, said they will challenge the plan in court if it's not changed.

Former Secretary of State Willis said the council needs to look beyond the map proposed by the redistricting commission.

“You’re going to be in court, right? With the current map you’re likely to be in court. You need to do a little more thinking of how to avoid that.”

Council Chairman Julian Jones, a Democrat, represents the fourth district. He plans to hold two town halls with constituents about it this week.

“When you look at a map and you want to draw these lines, these are people and communities,” Jones said. “I want to hear from them. I want them to tell me what do they think.”

And then there is Towson. Beth Miller with the Green Towson Alliance said they oppose the plan because it splits the county seat in two. Part of Towson would be in the county’s most rural council district.

“Urban centers are more congested by traffic and therefore have worse air quality,” Miller said. “Urban centers have more paving so they’re hotter and more uncomfortable. They just have an entirely different set of environmental concerns than rural districts.”

The council’s first public hearing on the plan is scheduled for 6 p.m. October 26. Council Chairman Jones said another will be held in December in advance of the council’s vote on the plan, set for December 20.

Democratic Councilman Izzy Patoka said all the proposed maps from the redistricting commission, the ACLU, the NAACP and others are in play.

“I think that they’re all up for discussion, up for modification, up for revision, up for tweaking to have the best council districts that we can create for the next 10 years.”

The final map must be approved by at least five members of the seven-member council. County Executive Johnny Olszewski has no say in it.

John Lee is a reporter for WYPR covering Baltimore County. @JohnWesleyLee2
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