The Southern Maryland delegation last week invited county commissioners to their Annapolis meeting to discuss opposition to a bill which would change the way in which commissioners, as well as local school board members, are elected.
House Bill 655, introduced by Del. Brian Crosby (D-St. Mary’s) and supported by the St. Mary’s NAACP branch and some local Democrats, would make voters in five counties, including St. Mary’s, Calvert and Charles, elect their commissioners based on which district they live in, rather than at-large. The legislation drew the ire from all three Southern Maryland boards of county commissioners.
Earlier in the year, Crosby was quoted saying the bill “improves democracy at a local level by ending Jim Crow-era policy of electing local representatives in a manner that disenfranchises non-white voters,” by allowing commissioners to be voted on by the entire county, potentially diluting minority votes.
“Our opposition is going to be more so, just the fact it does not put into consideration the current process,” Calvert Commissioner Steve Weems (R) said at a Friday meeting in Annapolis. “We are, in essence, comfortable with it and would like the status quo to be maintained.”
St. Mary’s County Commissioner President Randy Guy (R) said he gave “verbal testimony,” opposing the bill while on the House floor.
“I feel that this should have been somehow handled as a referendum. … Let the people of St. Mary’s County make the choice for how they want to handle elections,” he said. “This is totally unnecessary … and for Mr. Crosby to say this is democracy and we should handle this differently … I think he’s wrong.”
St. Mary’s Commissioner Eric Colvin (R) noted the voting districts bill would “take away the element of looking at the entire county as a whole” and could potentially turn commissioners against each other as they try “to secure resources for their particular district.”
Charles Commissioner President Reuben B. Collins II (D) mentioned his board had voted 4-1 to oppose HB 655, expressing concern with the legislation being treated as a “civil rights bill.” He also claimed it infringes on Charles County’s authority as a Code Home Rule jurisdiction to decide its own policies of local import.
“This bill is not called the civil rights voting act,” Del. C.T. Wilson (D-Charles) said. While Charles County currently has an all-Democrat board of commissioners, Wilson noted, “If there are Republicans in southern Charles County, and they are white and Republican, don’t they deserve a voice?” He added, “The goal for this country isn’t just that Black people have a voice, it’s that all people have a voice.”
The delegate mentioned the juxtaposition in St. Mary’s County, which has an all-Republican board of commissioners, even though a majority of the southern part of that county is comprised of Democrats.
“I stand behind my delegation on this,” Charles Commissioner Gilbert “BJ” O. Bowling III (D) said, mentioning he was the dissenting vote on his board. “If I don’t win my district then I don’t deserve to have a seat.”
Crosby said when he put the bill in he “didn’t think it would get the amount of attention it did,” but he “truly believes” in his heart “it is what is fair and right. … People should have the ability to elect who represents them at any level of government.”
Sen. Arthur Ellis (D-Charles) reminded everyone at the meeting he will have “direct input on the bill in its next phase” as it crosses over to the state Senate, and he encouraged those with issues to reach out to him.