After rejecting a peace offering that would have secured them some measure of representation on the redistricting commission, Democrats could only watch as the Harford County Council appointed an all-Republican membership to the group, which will help shape the political boundaries of Harford County for the next decade.
Harford County Council President Billy Boniface, a Republican, extended an offer to the Democratic Central Committee last week whereby the county council would appoint a single Democrat to the redistricting commission, if the Democrats backed off their threats of filing suit and allowed the redistricting process to proceed unimpeded.
When Democrats turned down that offer, the largely Republican county council forged ahead with its nominations as planned and, during its Tuesday night meeting, appointed 3 Republicans – Chris Pate, Jason Gallion, and Ben Lloyd – and no Democrats to the redistricting commission.
Pate and Gallion, both former political candidates, were among the names submitted by the Republican Central Committee. Ben Lloyd, a county employee working in the Division of Agriculture, was the county council pick – nominated by Councilman Chad Shrodes, also a Republican.
Earlier in the day Tuesday, Boniface said that the Democrats were arguing that the office of council president is separate from the county council, because, by eliminating that race from the vote calculation, the numbers are there to require Democratic representation on the commission. But Boniface pointed out there are many references to the seven-member council in the county Charter, and that the president is considered a member of the council.
Boniface told The Dagger that the advice of the law department is that the county council must uphold the county Charter and therefore could not allow Democrats on the redistricting commission based on the election results. However, the Charter also allows one additional appointed member and the offer was made to the Democrats that the council would appoint a Democrat to that position, meaning the composition of the 3-member commission would include 1 Democrat and 2 Republicans and the redistricting process could move forward.
Boniface said that would have resolved the issue without involving the courts, which he said both sides have said they would do depending on how the council made the vote-driven appointments.
The deal was offered last week through Councilman Dion Guthrie, one of two Democrats on the seven-member county council, but Wendy Sawyer, chair of the Democratic Central Committee, rejected it on behalf of the committee as of Thursday or Friday. Boniface then sent a letter to Sawyer, confirming the Democratic Central Committee’s rejection of the deal:
Asked why he thought they would reject such an offer, Boniface speculated, “I think taking the deal meant they [the Democratic Central Committee] were in the wrong”, for failing to run candidates in several races in the November election. Boniface said that the Democrats were looking to boost registration and using the issue to energize their base and “build animosity” toward Republicans.
Regarding the Democrats’ charge that the county Charter should have been changed when council elections were switched from at large to in-district elections, Boniface said, “It was the Democratic Party that drove in-district elections”, noting that the change was petition-driven. “They’re saying the council didn’t do it’s job, but they were the ones driving the process.”
Councilman Dick Slutzky, also a Republican, said during the council meeting that he would be upset if he were a Democrat, because it was due to inept party leadership that they had no representation on the legislative redistricting commission. He said Sawyer could have put her own name on the ballot for $50, and laid the blame squarely at the feet of her and the leadership of Harford County Democrats.
“They’re the ones who dropped the ball,” Slutzky said.
Sawyer was not available for comment after Tuesday night’s meeting. [But here are her comments on why Democrats rejected the offer]
Here is the Charter language in regard to commission membership:
County Code Section 205 – Redistricting procedure – also of interest, section 204
(a) The boundaries of Councilmanic districts shall be established in 1974 and re-established in 1982 and every tenth year thereafter. Whenever district boundaries are to be established or re-established, the Council shall appoint, not later than February 15 of the year prior to the year in which redistricting is to be effective, a commission on redistricting, composed of two members from each political party chosen from a list of five names submitted by the Central Committee of each political party which polled at least fifteen percent of the total vote cast for all candidates for the Council in the immediately preceding regular election. The Council shall appoint one additional member of the Commission. The Commission shall, at its first meeting, select one of its members to serve as chairperson. No person shall be eligible for appointment to the Commission if he/she holds any elected office.
(b) By October 1 of the year prior to the year in which redistricting is to be effective, the Commission shall prepare, publish, and make available a plan of Councilmanic districts and shall present that plan, together with a report explaining it, to the Council. The plan shall provide for Councilmanic districts that are compact, contiguous, and substantially equal in population. No less than fifteen calendar days and no more than thirty calendar days after receiving the plan of the Commission, the Council shall hold a public hearing on the plan. If within seventy calendar days following presentation of the Commission’s plan no other law establishing or re-establishing the boundaries of the Councilmanic districts has been enacted, then the plan, as submitted, shall become law.
Section 204 Election of Council Members
[Amended by Bill No. 80-40; by petition, November 2000]
Six Council Members, at the time of their election, shall each reside in a different one of six Council districts of the County. The seventh member of the Council shall be the President of the Council and may reside anywhere in the County. Each member of the Council required to reside in a Council district shall be nominated and elected by the qualified voters of the Council district in which the member resides; the President shall be nominated and elected by the qualified voters of the entire county. All Council Members shall be nominated and elected at the same time as state officers and in the manner provided by law.