Howard County executives and council redistricting

7 minute read

As reported by the Howard County Times, county executive Ken Ulman “decided not to sign” the council redistricting bill passed by the Howard County Council by a 3-2 vote, and as a result the original plan proposed by the redistricting commission will become law (per the Howard County charter).

I’ll leave it to others to comment on the whys and wherefores of Ulman’s decision (except to say that he’s been taking a fair number of politically contentious stands for a man who supposedly wants to be elected governor). I will however note that this is not the first time a county executive has found himself in the middle of controversy relating to Howard County Council redistricting.

To review how we got to where we are: When the election of council members by district was originally approved by Howard County voters the associated charter changes left it up to the council to adopt district boundaries and didn’t explicitly mention a role for the county executive. (The charter also wasn’t explicit on whether districting legislation had to be done via a council bill or a council resolution; see below.) When the first district boundaries were specified (in 1986) J. Hugh Nichols, the county executive at that time, declined to sign the council legislation establishing the district boundaries out of deference to the council’s role.

When redistricting was next done (beginning in 1991, after the 1990 census) the then-county executive, Republican Charles Ecker, was much more involved, making suggestions to the council (which had a 3-2 Democratic majority), submitting his own redistricting plan, and eventually vetoing the plan passed by the council. After a lawsuit and a couple of years of acrimony Ecker signed a compromise plan approved by the council 4-1 with the support of Charles Feaga, one of the two Republican council members.

That traumatic experience led to the creation of a (supposedly) independent redistricting commission to create council district lines. However the way the commission was selected (with members chosen by both parties and a “tie-breaker” member chosen by the council) meant that its decisions would not be free of political controversy, and the associated charter language still allowed for the council to amend the commission’s plan (assuming of course that it could reach agreement on any such changes). In the round of redistricting after the 2000 census the council did indeed amend the commission’s plan (after some intra-party feuding among the council’s 3-2 Democratic majority), and the amended plan was signed into law by James Robey, the county executive at that time.

This round of redistricting was shaping up to be a repeat of the post-2000 round, with the council once again unable to resist the temptation to mess with the commission’s plan, and then finally passing a compromise plan (again accompanied by a split among the Democratic council members). However this time Ken Ulman summoned his inner Chuck Ecker and vetoed the plan. Note that I say “vetoed” rather than the euphemistic “declined to sign” because I believe that under the relevant charter provision (section 209(g)) what Ulman did was strictly speaking a veto (like Chuck Ecker originally and unlike Jim Robey) refused to let the council’s plan go into effect.

Whether this counted as a true veto or not is an interesting question. To quote from the charter:

(g) Executive veto. Upon the passage of any legislation by the Council, with the exception of such measures as may in this Charter be made expressly exempt from the executive veto, the same shall be presented within three calendar days to the County Executive for his or her approval or disapproval, and within ten calendar days after such presentation the County Executive shall return any such legislation to the Council with his or her approval endorsed thereon or with a statement in writing of his or her reasons for not approving the same. Upon approval by the County Executive, any such legislation shall stand enacted. Any such legislation presented to the County Executive and returned with his or her veto may be reconsidered by the Council. The County Executive's objections shall be entered upon the Journal of the Council, and not later than at its next legislative session, the Council may reconsider the enactment thereof; and if two-thirds of the members of the Council vote in the affirmative, the legislation shall stand enacted. Whenever the County Executive shall fail to return any such legislation within ten days after the date of its presentation to him or her, the Administrator of the Council shall forthwith record the fact of such failure in the Journal and such legislative act shall thereupon stand enacted. ...

As noted in an earlier Howard County Times story, the redistricting bill was passed by the council on March 5 and presented to Ken Ulman on Tuesday afternoon, March 6. The press release announcing Ulman’s decision states that he “will be returning Council Bill 57-2011 to the County Council on Monday, March 19, unsigned.”and by my reading of 209(g) this constitutes an explicit veto In general if Ulman in fact does absolutely nothing with respect to a council bill (i.e., if he were to “fail to return any such legislation within ten days after the date of its presentation to him or her”) then the council legislation in question will be automatically enacted.

However… in this case things are complicated because the council passed its redistricting bill so close to the March 15 deadline. I’m not 100% sure what would have happened if Ulman had simply sat on the bill and never explicitly returned it unsigned. The bill in question was approved on March 5, but the ten-days allowed for executive consideration actually starts when the bill is “presented … to the County Executive for his or her approval or disapproval,” and I’m not sure when exactly that occurred. As noted above Ulman won’t actually return the bill to the council until March 19, so it’s possible that the ten-day window doesn’t expire until then. By my reading of 209(g) the ten-day window for Ulman to sign or veto the bill would end on March 16, after the expiration of the deadline. Since Ulman didn’t actually return the bill on March 15, but merely announced his intention to do so, my opinion is that his action in sending the letter to the council wasn’t a true veto as defined by the charter.

Why didn’t Ulman simply do nothing whatsoever and let the clock run out on its own? Why explicitly return the bill to the council on March 19, given that the March 15 deadline for enactment of a redistricting bill and the March 16 deadline for executive action would have already passed? Perhaps Ulman wanted to avoid any ambiguity over whether or not the council’s plan had been rejected and forestall any possible legal controversies. If anyone reading this knows more about the technicalities or politics around this issue please post something in the comments section.

If the council had gotten its act together earlier then presumably there would have been time for the council to try again to pass an acceptable plan, and if that plan could get approval from at least four council members then Ken Ulman’s veto would have been overridden. By delaying so long the council essentially put Ulman into the driver’s seat when it came to council redistricting.

I should also note that Ken Ulman can thank Chuck Ecker for establishing the precedent that county executives can in fact veto do in fact have legal authority with respect to council-passed redistricting plans. Prior to Ecker’s veto and the subsequent lawsuit it was unclear whether the council could pass a redistricting via a council resolution (which is not subject to the county executive’s veto) or needed to pass it as a bill (which is subject to veto). County Republicans won the lawsuit filed as part of the early 1990s redistricting battle, as the judge in the case held that indeed redistricting plans needed to be enacted via bills, not resolutions.

(However note that per the charter the members of the redistricting commission are to be appointed by a resolution, not a bill, which among other things prevents a county executive of one party from rejecting redistricting commission members appointed by a council majority of another party.)

Finally, some shameless self-promotion: If you’re interested in the back story behind the current round of redistricting and why Howard County does council redistricting the way it does, check out my ebook Dividing Howard: A History of County Council Redistricting in Howard County, Maryland. The book covers all the above topics and lots more besides—it’s essentially a mini-history of Howard County politics from before the founding of Columbia to the early 21st century. To celebrate the conclusion of the current redistricting saga I’m reducing the price of the book to 99 cents; as before, I’m donating all royalties from sales of the book to the local charity Voices for Children, which recruits and trains volunteer advocates to represent the best interests of abused and neglected children in the Howard County Courts.

UPDATE: I’ve revised the section above discussing whether Ulman actions with respect to the redistricting bill constituted a true veto or not.