About 20 Baltimore County residents crowded into a conference room at a library branch in Woodlawn to plead for representation that looked more like them.

The County Council has had seven members since its founding in 1956. Since then, the county’s population has more than tripled, from 270,273 to 854,535, according to a work group looking at the question of expanding the council.

While the county is 32% Black and nearly half nonwhite, the council is now made up of six white men and one Black man. The state’s third-most populous county requires each council member to represent about 122,000 constituents, the highest ratio in the state. And that’s in a county with no incorporated cities or towns, such as Bowie or Rockville, that also represent residents’ interests.

“We have already waited 68 years. Do not delay anymore,” said Linda Dorsey-Walker, a member of the Baltimore County Democratic Central Committee who has been active in the VOTE4MORE! group.

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She spoke at a public hearing Wednesday night focused on whether to expand the seven-member council by two or even four members.

Dorsey-Walker said she hears frequently from the growing Latino, Black, and Asian populations that they are not seeing themselves represented on the council, or having their concerns taken seriously.

“They, like me, have watched your meetings, and they are disturbed by what they see as a trend to disregard demographics and diversity,” Dorsey-Walker said.

Voters in Baltimore County should not have less of a voice than voters in Baltimore City or the surrounding counties, added Peta Richkus, the former secretary of Maryland’s Department of General Services and the co-organizer of the Baltimore County Coalition for Fair Maps.

“Given who Baltimore County is today, it’s shocking to face a council of six white men and a single African American one,” she said.

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An 11-member work group has been working long hours since November on the question of council expansion.

The work group had said in a draft report that it planned to recommend expanding the council by two members, and not the four that some in the public had called for. Council chair Izzy Patoka, the only member who attended the hearing, said he was in favor of expanding by two members and then revisiting the measure as the population changed.

Roland Patterson of the local NAACP branch objected to what he considered a half-measure, though, and others suggested this step could waste money because the county would have to redo the maps again.

“This recommendation is to go from a 68-year-old standard to a 34-year-old standard, and I suggest there is no bravery, no freedom, in that,” he said.

Wednesday night’s hearing followed one last week in White Marsh, where about half as many residents attended. Residents who spoke at that meeting also expressed a preference for expansion.

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Tony Campbell, the Towson University political science professor who chairs the work group, said he would send a final report containing the recommendations to the council by March 31. The group will meet again on Monday, and may change its recommendation based on feedback that it gets.

At that time, Patoka said, he plans to introduce a measure to expand the council — by how many, he is not sure yet. He will need a supermajority of five votes to pass it. Despite what fellow members have said about how they may vote, Patoka said that with new information, he is hopeful he can persuade four colleagues to join him.

County Executive Johnny Olszewski has already said he supports expanding the council, which could cost up to $12 million more for staff, space and resources.

If the council approves the measure, it will go to a referendum. It’s unclear when that would be; it depends on how and when Patoka introduces the measure and how long the Board of Elections needs to put it on the ballot.

Patoka said his main concern is not the number or the diversity of the people in his district — “If you can’t represent your entire district, you shouldn’t run for council.” But, he said, it’s legitimate that voters want to see themselves reflected in their government.

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Substitute teacher Karen Braithwaite-Yarn was disappointed that more council members did not attend. “It’s my impression they already have their position and are not interested in changing it,” she said. Those in power are unlikely to want to dilute their influence. She said that attending public meetings sometimes feels futile, but she went anyway.

Sheila Lewis, who serves on the work group, urged members of the public not to give up, whatever the council’s decision.

“Once the decision is made, there is another group that is going to draw the lines. So don’t stop there,” she said. “A lot of times, when we don’t achieve something, it is because we stop advocating.”

Rona Kobell is a regional reporter at The Banner focused on Baltimore County.

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