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Tensions High During House Debate on Changing County Commissioners’ Elections

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The House of Delegates will continue debate later this week on a bill that would change the way some Maryland counties elect their commissioners.

Debate grew heated on the House floor Tuesday, as lawmakers considered whether to change election rules for five counties where district-based commissioners are elected by county-wide votes.

Supporters of the change say the current systems in five counties ― Calvert, Charles, Garrett, Queen Anne’s and St. Mary’s ― disenfranchise people of color by diluting the votes from their neighborhoods.

Republican lawmakers from some of the counties opposed the measure, House Bill 655, on the floor and questioned whether the legislative tradition of “local courtesy” ― deferring to a county delegation’s position on bills changing local laws ― would apply.

“Did any of those five counties ask for this bill?” Del. Matthew Morgan (R-St. Mary’s) asked.

“The people in the counties absolutely did. Voters came to the hearing and requested that this change be made, so we had an outpouring of voters,” Del. Jheanelle Wilkins (D-Montgomery) responded. “Especially from your jurisdiction, Delegate.”

Morgan then asked whether any county governments in those five counties opposed the bill. Four of the county governments sent letters in opposition, and Charles County did not weigh in, Wilkins said.

All of the current members of the county board in Charles are Democrats. All of the members in the other counties are Republicans.

Del. Mark N. Fisher (R-Calvert) asked whether there was any attempt to reach a compromise with the county leaders in the counties that would be affected by the bill. He pointed out that opposition to the measure in Calvert County included the current commissioners’ president, who was a cabinet secretary for Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley.

“It just seems on matters of local privilege that when you have a county commission you would ask the county commission what they would want to see, and maybe some sort of compromise could be reached, or what have you,” Fisher said. “Was that done?”

Wilkins responded.

“Colleagues, it is our duty and our obligation as a legislature where we see a dilution of the vote, particularly one that might impact minority communities, that we step up and act,” Wilkins said. “So waiting on the county commissioners to get on board is not something that this legislature needs to do or should do when we see the dilution of the vote and lack of fair representation.”

Fisher took exception to Wilkins “accusation” and suggested that she didn’t “know a whole lot about Calvert County.”

Then House Majority Leader Eric G. Luedtke (D-Montgomery) intervened.

The continued discussion was out of order, Luedtke said, if the Republican members weren’t debating or introducing amendments to the legislation.

Republicans pressed for leniency on the rules, in order to continue the debate.

“I would just like a little more latitude to ask a few more questions, Madame Speaker, on a really important issue to Calvert County,” Fisher said, amid cross-talk in the chamber. “And I respect the fact that the majority leader doesn’t want those questions asked … if I were the majority leader …”

House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) cut him off. She pressed the Republican members on order, asking for a fourth time if anyone had an amendment for the body to consider.

After a brief conversation among those opposed about whether an amendment existed, Morgan made a motion to hold off debate for one day, so an amendment could be written.

Debate is scheduled to continue when the House meets next on Thursday morning.

The bill is sponsored by Del. Brian M. Crosby (D-St. Mary’s). There is no Senate crossfile.

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Tensions High During House Debate on Changing County Commissioners’ Elections