A history of Howard County Council redistricting, part 4

4 minute read

In part 3 of this series Columbia’s new-found political power was tested in a referendum in 1976 on a proposal to expand the Howard County Council from five to seven members and elect all members by districts instead of at large. The referendum failed, but a Maryland constitutional amendment left the door open to further attempts.

On with our story:

1977. After electing a Columbia-dominated county council and beating back an attempt to move to council districts, Columbians celebrate the tenth birthday of the new town. Columbia’s population exceeds 45,000 (more than the entire population of Howard County in 1960), and is well-educated and affluent (averaging over $25,000 per year in family income, almost double the national median household income).1

Meanwhile former commissioner and council member Charles Miller recalls Jim Rouse as a good salesman and Columbia as like a Chevrolet sold as a Cadillac, and notes that if he had to do it over again he would have not approved the Columbia plan. He worries about subsidized housing turning into slums, and calls Columbia a real problem for the rest of the county: I feel we are being exploited…. People come to me all the time and complain about Columbia. They tell me, You brought it in. Now, get it out. But Miller goes on to acknowledge that what’s done is done, and that Columbia is here to stay.

(At youthful age of 10, Columbia is feeling like a grown-up new town)

1978. Former state delegate J. Hugh Nichols, a former council member and one of the main proponents of the 1976 council district proposal, announces his intent to challenge Edward Cochran for the Howard County executive position. Observers see a tough fight ahead for Cochran, perceived as vulnerable for a recent spending spree for new county infrastructure and services.

In the September Democratic primary Nichols defeats Cochran by a 3,000-vote margin thanks to winning a 3-1 advantage outside of Columbia. Nichols goes on to win the general election by overwhelming margins over Republican James Ansell, and becomes Howard County’s third county executive.

(A Promising Contest in Howard, Tough Race in Howard, Nichols upsets Cochran in race for Howard post, Nichols elected handily; Pascal wins second term)

1979-1980. The Howard County Council appoints 21 people to a commission to review the county charter and make recommendations for changes; the commission consists of 18 Democrats, two Republicans, and one independent. (According to council chair Ruth Keeton, only six Republicans applied to join the commission.) A bipartisan group questions whether the charter review board was established in violation of the Howard County Charter, and Republicans file suit to stop it. In the end a judge allows the commission to proceed as an interim advisory body, with a second legal charter review board to be created later.2

Republican commission member Charles Feaga proposes a district scheme similar to that rejected by the voters in 1978; the commission rejects it, 12-7. The commission also rejects by even larger margins proposals by Democratic commission member Steve Lee to retain at-large voting but expand the council from five to seven members and require that at least four members reside in different districts.

The commission formally recommends retaining at-large election of council members. Charles Feaga leads a petition drive to force a council district proposal to appear on the November 1980 ballot, but it falls short; Feaga blames complacency (We live in an affluent society, and too many people were away on vacations), troubles petitioners experienced in getting permission to solicit signatures at shopping centers (they lost their nerve, and they would not go back), and his farm work taking time away from leading the effort. Although several charter amendments are placed before the voters, a council district proposal is not among them.

(Charter review panel is named, Howard charter to get two reviews, Keep at-large voting, Howard panel advises, Howard charter proposal keeps at-large elections, Howard council district drive falls short, Howard charter amendments)

In part 5 we’ll see how the council district controversy continued to affect Howard County politics in the early 1980s.


  1. From U.S. census data the estimated population of Howard County in 1977 was 108,200. So with 45,000 people Columbia accounted for over 40% of Howard County’s population. Note that all of Howard County had a population of 61,911 in 1970 and 36,152 in 1960 (also from Census data).

The stated figure of $25,000 annual income per family is most likely the median household income. In 1977 the U.S. median household income was $13,670, from the U.S. Census Bureau report Money Income in 1977 of Households in the United States. Based on the CPI inflation calculator from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a $25,000 household income in 1977 would be equivalent to over $90,000 today.↩

  1. The underlying legal issue was that the original Howard County charter called for a charter review board to make a comprehensive study of the charter after the 1980 census. Since the charter review board in question was established in 1979 prior to the census, the contention was that establishing the board was contrary to the direction of the charter.↩