Former Delegate Jim King put on a suit and tie for the redistricting hearings in Annapolis and Columbia on Aug. 30. But earlier in the day, the lone Republican on the Governor’s Redistricting Advisory Committee was in jeans, throwing out $25,000 worth of food from his two restaurants, Rockfish in Annapolis and Kaufman’s Tavern in Gambrills.
Both eateries had been without power for about three days after Hurricane Irene came through, and King bemoaned the loss of business and spoiled food at one of the busiest times of the year. He said he would have preferred the shutdown in a slow season like February.
Anne Arundel County was one of the worst hit areas in the BGE service areas. More than 236,000 customers lost power, and 33,000 were still without power three days after the storm hit. The high winds buffeted central Maryland more than the Eastern Shore counties closer to the eye of the storm and brought down thousands of mature trees in older communities, knocking down wires.
BGE was doing its best to put a good face on its restoration efforts, as the utility gave an Aug. 30 tour of its temporary regional command center in Odenton to Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown and several reporters. More than 30 BGE employees worked at scores of computer screens and on telephones, coordinating work crews, many from out of state. “We’re working as quickly as we can,” BGE President & CEO Kenneth DeFontes said.
Trees: How the Mighty Have Fallen
“We love our trees” that make Maryland so beautiful, DeFontes said, but many that fell in high winds were more than 50 feet from power lines. “We’d have to clear two million trees” to keep the power lines from being vulnerable, he said, and residents likely would not tolerate the loss.
Putting all the lines underground is “extraordinarily expensive,” he said. He pointed out that, since 1969, “all new service is put underground.”
However, he recognized that residents were becoming impatient. “Customers want to know ‘when am I going to get my power back?’” DeFontes said. He and his wife know the frustration first-hand; they lost power in their home in Kingsville in Baltimore County for two days.
Legislators are already demanding the Public Service Commission hold hearings on BGE’s response. The General Assembly passed legislation earlier this year to have the commission examine electricity reliability throughout the state. The law was largely aimed at Pepco, which serves the Washington suburbs.
But in the latest storm, far fewer Pepco customers lost power and the company got the lights back on much faster than BGE.
Political Life Goes On
But even with the lights out, political life goes on. The Anne Arundel hearing on redistricting was at first canceled at the community college, which had lost power, and then rescheduled the same day for the Legislative Services Building near the State House. The switcheroo caused complaints, but still about 50 people showed up there and at a similar hearing that evening in Columbia. More came to observe rather than to testify.
In both venues, more Republicans than Democrats chose to testify, perhaps because they recognized that redistricting in Maryland has tended to screw Republicans and favor Democrats.
The five-member advisory committee appointed by O’Malley is chaired by his patronage chief Jeanne Hitchcock and includes Senate President Mike Miller, House Speaker Mike Busch, and Richard Stewart, a businessman who chaired the governor’s reelection campaign in Prince George’s County. All are Democrats except for King.
They are supposed to recommend a congressional redistricting map in September and a legislative redistricting map in December. There will be a special session of the General Assembly in October to enact the congressional map.
Put Anne Arundel Back Together
The Annapolis hearing kicked off with a harangue from Brian Griffiths, president of the Maryland Young Republicans, who complained about the timing and called the current congressional district maps “disgraceful.” “Unfortunately, neither I, nor a majority of the people of Maryland, have any confidence in this commission or this governor to do the right thing,” Griffiths said.
Despite Griffiths’ belligerent tone, other witnesses echoed his complaint about the gerrymandering of Anne Arundel County into four oddly-shaped congressional districts. Several said they wanted the entire county in one district, giving it the chance for a resident congressman, as it had for decades.
The current representatives of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Congressional Districts “are pulled in so many different directions,” said Del. Cathy Vitale, a Severna Park Republican.
There were other more parochial concerns, principally keeping communities together. Overall, the witnesses simply asked the advisory committee to follow the requirements in the state constitution: “Each legislative district shall consist of adjoining territory, be compact in form and of substantially equal population. Due regard shall be given to natural boundaries and boundaries of political subdivisions.”
Failure to follow those rules caused the state Court of Appeals, Maryland’s highest court, to redraw legislative districts in 2002. But the same rules don’t apply to congressional districts, and federal courts generally don’t overturn districting plans unless the district populations are not equal.
The League of Women Voters (LWV) was unhappy with the redistricting process itself. LWV representatives testified in both Annapolis and Columbia that they would rather have a bipartisan commission to set district lines, with no elected officials on the commission. The league also would have preferred the hearings happen after the committee has drawn new maps, so the public would have something to react to.
As it stands now, it appears the public will get to testify on the maps only after the governor has submitted them to the legislature.
Councilman Jones Pleads Guilty to Tax Evasion
Anne Arundel County Councilman Darryl Jones, a Severn Democrat, pled guilty last month in federal court to failing to file federal income taxes for four years, and failing to file quarterly payroll taxes on his law office and the tavern he ran with his late mother.
Jones will have to pay $108,000 in back taxes, but he also faces jail time, a $25,000 fine and loss of his law license. However, he doesn’t automatically lose his seat on the county council. That could occur if the other members of the council act to remove him.
He will be sentenced in November. The Maryland Attorney Grievance Commission would have to act on his law license. Jones blamed the failure to file tax returns on his care for his ailing mother, who died in 2006, the last year for which he failed to pay taxes.
Jones was re-elected last year to his second term on the council.