For those who think government meetings are boring, they weren’t at the St. Mary’s redistricting board’s Nov. 30 meeting.
Board chair Richard Johnson and the county government’s attorney argued loudly numerous times during the first 30-plus minutes of the meeting, which began at 5:30 p.m. and ended up lasting a little over an hour.
David Weiskopf yelled at Johnson repeatedly after Johnson insisted that the board was using Robert’s Rules of Order, even though Weiskopf said they were not approved for use in the county. At least twice Johnson held up a document that he alleged showed that Robert’s Rules were approved for use by the county’s small boards.
Johnson told Weiskopf several times that he was out of order, and Weiskopf then rushed from the second row of the audience to sit directly in front of the five-member board.
Weiskopf told Johnson, as chair, that he did not have the right to make a motion, but Johnson insisted that he did. He made a motion to approve the agenda, but no one seconded it. Vice chair Matt Burgan then made a motion to approve the agenda, which was seconded by Patricia Richardson and approved.
Johnson began responding to public comments that were made during four recent public hearings about the draft map, but Weiskopf said Johnson was outside the agenda.
Johnson said that a man who was at all four hearings, Brandon Russell, who is the second vice chair of the St. Mary’s County Democratic Central Committee, recruited members of the public to attend the public hearings. Johnson said several in the hearings repeated NAACP talking points.
Johnson said he believed that the board’s draft map would be final unless the three members who approved it earlier prior to the public hearings voted to rescind it.
“You’ve gone completely nuts,” Weiskopf yelled.
“This meeting is adjourned,” Johnson said.
“You have lost your mind,” Weiskopf said. “You can’t be this thick because it just boggles my mind. This is beyond the pale.” A short time later he added, “Damn, this is stupid.”
Johnson referred to rescinding the draft map as disenfranchising 80,000 county residents who didn’t show up at the public hearings.
Weiskopf derisively called Johnson, “King Richard,” and said he was “acting like a complete loon.”
“I object to exposing members of this board to this discussion,” Richardson said.
At one point at 5:52 p.m., Weiskopf was overheard telling someone, “I can’t. I’m gonna get fired.” He then walked out of the room for a few minutes before returning.
Burgan made a motion to rescind the draft map, which Richardson seconded. Johnson then had a discussion with assistant county attorney John Houser, who has been advising the board. Houser, offering a calmer presence, said he’d only been on the job six months, but added that the original draft map would be challenged in court by a person in the audience who isn’t a county resident “and is going to go down.”
“It was a preliminary map. Why are you being so obtuse?” Weiskopf asked Johnson. “You have made a mockery of this, sir. This is the worst thing I’ve seen in 13 years [working for the county].”
Burgan noted that he had made some revisions to his draft map following each of four public hearings, and he asked the county’s Geographic Information Systems manager Eric Benson to show the revised map on the screen.
Burgan noted that the revisions kept the four districts within the required 10% differential in population, and took into account some of the changes requested at the previous public hearings. He called it a “better product.”
He then suggested a few other adjustments that could be made to keep voting precincts together.
However, when the board members looked at those revisions, board member Lance Johnson questioned it. “It looks like we’re doing a lot of gerrymandering,” he said, referring to the odd shapes of districts 1 and 4 in particular. He added that Burgan’s original draft map looked gerrymandered, too, but said the revised one was worse.
Board member Paul Thompson said, “I’m more comfortable moving it back to where it was,” with Burgan’s latest adjustments based on public comments.
Richardson said she heard at the public hearings that folks wanted to keep communities of interest together, like those around Great Mills High School. “I’m comfortable acting on public input,” she said.
“There’s no easy way about this,” Burgan said.
“It’s better than the old map, and it’s balanced,” Richard Johnson said. “We can’t win everything, every day.”
Richardson made a motion to approve the revised draft, which was second by Thompson and passed 5-0. The board members noted that they did not consider political party registration or race/ethnicity in drawing the map.
Houser said the board would make a final vote on the map on Dec. 7 and send it to the commissioners on Dec. 14. The commissioners do not approve the map.
After the meeting, Burgan noted the four changes included in his revised draft map.
The elongated District 4 was shortened to its northernmost point on the current map that was approved in 2012, and Great Mills was removed from District 2 and put back with Lexington Park in District 4.
Also, the number of residents who would be moved from one district to another was reduced from 28,000 to 13,000.
And, the Chestnut Ridge subdivision, which is split between districts 1 and 2 in the current map but was in district 2 in the draft, was moved completely into District 1.
After the meeting, St. Mary’s County Commissioner John O’Connor (R) said in a text that what Richard Johnson did was “way out of line, an insult to democracy, the citizens of this county and the commissioners.”
Johnson had been appointed by Commissioner President Randy Guy (R).