At the Howard County Council’s December legislative public hearing, changes proposed by the Councilmanic Redistricting Commission sparked a lively debate over representation that briefly drew council members into the fray.
At issue was a proposal to redistrict a portion of Ellicott City lying within the boundary formed by routes 100, 104 and 103, from District 1 to District 2.
In effect, opponents said, the proposal creates a fish-out-of-water scenario for residents whose perspective as residents in Ellicott City is inconsistent with the perspective of Columbia residents.
Another proposal that moves some residents from District 4 to District 1 also drew criticism.
At least 53 Ellicott City residents, all dressed in red, expressed dissatisfaction with the change. Of the nine residents who testified at the public hearing, six were opposed to the redistricting plan.
“Wheatfield wants to stay in District 1,” said Deborah Bures-Walker, an Ellicott City resident, arguing that redistricting guidelines called for compact, contiguous districts that are substantially equal in population and have a common interest as a result of geography, occupation, history or existing boundaries.
“We believe that the commission’s recommended map does not follow these guidelines,” she said, in light of a walkable geography along Route 103 and parallel future concerns these residents have that are shared with other citizens in District 1.
“We understand that citizens need to be moved,” she said, “but we don’t understand why the … recommended map moves 26,000 citizens, while other maps move one third of that and still meet all required guidelines.”
Bures-Walker noted that the number of citizens moved by the recommended map equates to nearly 10% of the voters in the county. She called upon the council to support a revised map or an amendment that moves a minimum number of residents and leaves the Wheatfield community in District 1.
Robert Callahan of Ellicott City said the recommended map appears to move residents for non-charter reasons.
“The redistricting commission decided arbitrarily and for political reasons that Columbia needed to be carved up in a particular way, and the result is many communities being broken up, including ours,” he said.
Like all communities, his neighborhood has unique, different needs in respect to county services, schools and community history, Callahan said. “I believe redistricting can be done within the charter’s purpose without disrupting communities.” he said.
Ellicott City resident Stephen Walker also called for compromise. “I do not think that the aspects [of] leaving Wheatfield in District 1, gaining political advantage and leveling the population in each district are incompatible,” he said. “It is unsettling as a citizen to see a proposed map that moves so many people from their current districts at a time when citizen participation in government is very low.”
Carolyn Horton, also of Ellicott City, argued that any issue she needed help with would likely be an issue in District 1, where she shops, worships and sends her children to school.
“While I would expect the District 2 councilmember to be responsive, will he or she be as vested in the area as the District 1 councilman?” she asked. “These are my real and pragmatic concerns.”
Those speaking in favor of the redistricting map included Dr. Clarence Lam, of Columbia. “I believe it was developed with the best interests of Howard County residents broadly in mind and … appears to best address the concerns of residents that were voiced during the redistricting process,” he said.
Lam added that the commission heard suggestions that endorsed uniting the entire Route 1 Corridor under the same district.
“In the end [the commission] decided it would be more beneficial to have the region represented by three council members, thus constituting a majority of the council, thus [lending] itself well to a greater sense of cooperation and unity,” he said. “Route 1 consists of more of a collection of distinct communities and neighborhoods in contrast to the shared identity of a Columbia village, like Dorsey’s Search.”
Jonathan Branch, president of the Columbia Democratic Club, also spoke in support of the plan. “When I was here last, someone made some disparaging remarks … and referred to Columbia as a ghetto,” Branch said. “Nothing could be further from the truth … I think [this plan] does the best job based on the guidelines.”
District 5 Councilman Greg Fox (R), however, pointed out that every other proposal, including his own, moves less than half the number of people compared to the recommended change. “From a sheer numeric standpoint … it is doing the worst job,” Fox said.
In her defense of Branch’s assertion, District 2 Councilwoman Courtney Watson chastised Fox for attacking Branch’s opinion.
“I felt that way, as far as the general residents [at the last hearing] when you were attacking them,” Fox said. “This is somebody coming on behalf of a political standpoint,” which drew a round of applause from the Ellicott City contingent.
The Race Issue
Picking up where Branch left off, Sherman Howell, vice president of the African American Coalition of Howard County, almost (but not quite) asserted that racism was at play in the arguments leveled by some who opposed the redistricting change.
“We’ve heard over and over again from people in Ellicott City that they don’t like Columbia, it’s too progressive,” Howell said. “I don’t understand how a community can be too progressive.”
On the other hand, he recommended that Dorsey’s Search residents remain in District 4 and not be reassigned to District 1, arguing that a boundary change would prevent African-Americans living within that boundary from getting elected if they chose to run for office.
“There are not a lot of African-Americans in that part of Columbia,” he said. “Should they be moved into Ellicott City, they would not be able to effectively run a campaign and get the necessary votes to become a member of the county council in that particular area. Any minority would have a shot at Mary Kay Sigaty’s position.”
Ellicott City resident Linda Bowers countered that the argument is not about black or white, or even Republican or Democrat. “This is about doing the right thing,” she said. “If you’re going to move that many people, then let’s make it contiguous and stop gerrymandering. It’s about being comfortable where you are and being represented where you live and socialize.”