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Several residents provide input at Senate committee hearing

By AMANDA HARRISON

Staff writer

Several county residents traveled to Annapolis last Thursday to speak on a proposed bill that, if passed, would alter the election process of the county commissioners.

On Thursday, the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee held a hearing regarding Senate Bill 729, which would modify the method of electing the Calvert County Board of County Commissioners. Six county residents shared their support of the bill, claiming the current process is too confusing, and two expressed opposition on the grounds that the county went through the process of altering the districts and already made a decision.

The bill, introduced by Calvert County senators, would require each candidate for the office of county commissioner to specify, when filing a certificate of candidacy with the Calvert County Board of Elections, whether they are running for a specific district or at large, beginning with the November 2014 election.

Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert, Prince George’s) and Sen. Roy P. Dyson (D-Calvert, St. Mary’s, Charles) are cosponsoring the bill.

“Even one of the county commissioners said the plan is broke,” Miller said to the committee. “No other county in the state works like this. I don’t think any other county in the United States works like this.”

Under the proposed law, candidates in a specific district would run for their district and other candidates who are residents of the county would run at large. Five county commissioners would remain, with one from each of the three districts and two at-large commissioners; however, the change is that the candidates would have to specify which when filing for candidacy.

Dyson explained that the current system is “particularly” confusing and shared the story of how former commissioner Barbara Stinnett, who got “not the highest, but a high number of votes, and the people under her, who get less numbers, get elected commissioners and she does not become commissioner.”

Dyson said he “favors” five districts, which is similar to St. Mary’s County Board of County Commissioners. “I think it works very well.”

Concerned Black Women of Calvert County President Annette Funn, former chairman of the Calvert County Redistricting Committee Wilson Parran, Calvert Education Association President Debbie Russ, Co-president of the Calvert County League of Women Voters Anne Mychalus and Calvert County Democratic Central Committee Vice Chairman Stovy Brown all spoke in favor of the proposed bill.

Russ said the CEA, the union representing Calvert County Public Schools teachers, believes the current system is “flawed and unfair.”

“SB 729 will allow candidates to more directly communicate with voters and provide voters more information on individual candidates’ positions on issues,” Russ said.

Brown explained that the central committee originally came out in support of five election districts as proposed by the CCRC, but the proposal was turned down by the current BOCC.

“Right now, with the current system ... if you win your own district, that’s great. But you may not, so in effect, you’re running against all of the other nine for the at-large seats,” Brown explained. “This creates abnormalities in how people campaign and how people vote, which are not good.”

Brown said the bill would limit the number of races “in terms of who your opponent is,” and would clarify which candidates are running against each other.

Funn, who explained that the Concerned Black Women of Calvert County “addresses issues from a nonpartisan perspective,” said the commission supports the proposed bill because “there is a real need to clarify the election process regarding the [BOCC] in Calvert County.”

She said after a BOCC election, it usually takes a day or two to determine who won which seat and why.

“Often, the candidates attaining the most votes is not the winner. The current method of electing county commissioners results in voter confusion, frustration and discussion from one election to the next election about who really won. We’re really left in a quandary,” Funn said.

“While no bill is perfect, the proposed features in this bill increase the needed transparency for electing county commissions ... and helps citizens to better understand this election process,” Funn concluded.

Parran, a former county commissioner, said he was there to express his support for the bill as a resident.

“We had 962 visits to the [redistricting committee] webpage, 742 surveys completed, and discussion notes as a result of talking to hundreds of people about the redistricting process,” Parran said of the redistricting committee’s efforts. “The survey indicated that 45 percent of the respondents favored no change; however, 50 percent indicated that they would like to see more districts.”

Parran said that it was “very evident” that voters are confused about how an at-large commissioner is elected, mainly because residents didn’t understand how one person who receives more votes than another could not be elected commissioner.

“This bill eliminates this confusion,” he told the affairs committee. ... This bill simplifies the process implemented 35 years ago. I thank Sen. Miller and Sen. Dyson for taking the initiative to eliminate the confusion.”

Residents Preston Pratt and Benjamin Krause spoke in opposition of the bill, saying they think the state is overruling the county’s decision to keep the same number of election districts as well the same district boundary lines.

“By what right does the state have to bypass the voters of Calvert County and the local government?” asked Krause, who said he plans to run for county commissioner in 2014. He said the state is “trampling” on the rights of county citizens with the proposal of this bill.

“It seems little improvement would be made to my county as a whole as a result of this legislation,” he said. “The only thing that seems to be gained by Calvert’s senators who proposed this bill is that the predominantly Republican local Calvert County would have to play partisan politics that much more.”

Currently, he explained, the “party politics” is minimal, allowing candidates to run “as people first and party members second.”

Pratt said he opposes the bill “not so much” for its content, but because “I do not want my county to have the same political environment that I have seen in previous elections” in St. Mary’s County, with negativity and “nastier attacks.”

He said he doesn’t have a problem with the candidates running countywide.

“I don’t want it to be where District 1 can vote for District 1. So, I agree, we need everybody voting it,” he said. “... The idea of the state saying, ‘Oh, well we don’t agree with the decision that the county made; we’re just going to change it,’ I don’t agree with it. I don’t see the numbers where the county’s coming out in major volumes saying, ‘We don’t understand. We want this change.’”

Pratt acknowledged that “there is confusion and we’re not perfect,” and that some changes may be in order, but “it’s all politically motivated.”

After hearing public testimony, Sen. J.B. Jennings (R-Baltimore, Harford) asked Miller why the bill doesn’t just create five election districts as proposed by the CCRC.

“[The commissioners aren’t] from the same party I am. We’re trying to reach a compromise,” Miller replied. “All of us here,” Miller said, pointing to the six county residents who expressed their support of the bill, “support the five districts. But we’re trying to reach out and get a compromise.”

aharrison@somdnews.com