Since the 1970s, civic activists have clamored to expand Baltimore County’s council, which has remained at seven members since the legislative body began under a charter in 1956.

They couldn’t do it even as the county quadruped in size, to more than 840,000 residents; even as it became one of the most diverse jurisdictions in Maryland, with Black residents making up more than 30% of the population and with a growing Latino and Arab immigrant base; and even as other counties made the move to expand.

But when the council finally voted 5-1 Monday night to expand by two members, the mood in the chamber did not seem celebratory. And that’s even with the vote being bipartisan, with three Republicans and two Democrats voting in favor of the historic change, and even though Council Chair Izzy Patoka was not sure he had the votes to pass a key campaign promise until he called roll.

Activists packed a public hearing prior to the vote to ask the council to expand by four members, not two. Several returned to testify after the vote to press their case again. They called the vote disappointing and said that it would likely not change the makeup of the council, which is all-male and nearly all-white. And they objected to newly drawn political maps, posted online just hours before the hearing, that divide the county into nine districts by taking a chunk from each council district and creating two new minority-majority districts in the western part of the county.

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“Sometimes, compromise is not the way to go,” said Peta Richkus, a longtime activist for council expansion. “Eleven districts is what the numbers demand.”

Dana Vickers Shelley, executive director of the ACLU of Maryland, said that her organization objected to the process by which the councilmen created the map as well as the delineation of districts.

“It undermines the very purpose of council expansion by limiting opportunities for Black [voters] and voters of color — just to have the nine districts when it is possible to do far better,” she said.

Councilman Mike Ertel, who had been trying to expand the council for a decade before he was elected, looked defeated, even in victory.

“It’s historic,” the Towson Democrat said, “but it still seems like we got mud thrown at us.”

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Getting to nine

The latest expansion push came from residents as well as Patoka and Ertel, who had championed the expansion as community activists.

Ertel was elected only after redistricting created a new district in Towson, where he’d worked as a community leader for decades. In October 2023, the council passed legislation creating the Baltimore County Council Structure Workgroup to evaluate options for how, and whether, to expand the council. Six council members voted for the legislation; only Republican Todd Crandell, who repeatedly said the council was working “fine” as it was, did not vote for it.

The group met several times and held three public hearings. They discussed not expanding at all, expanding by two, or expanding by four. The consensus recommendation was to expand by two, and the workgroup delivered that recommendation to the council in March.

For months, not much happened publicly. The council had a lot of other business, including the school overcrowding bill, the county executive’s veto of it, and Monday’s override of the veto. But the question of expansion was a change to the charter, and it would need to be put to voters — and by November in order to expand by 2026. To make that happen, the enabling legislation had to pass in July.

Shuttle Diplomacy

Even though the commission only recommended adding two new members, civic groups continued to press for four. Vote4More, which includes many Democratic activists, and the NAACP circulated petitions pushing to reduce the number of people in a district from 125,000 to 78,000. They argued this change would increase not only opportunities for Black candidates, but would open the door for those representing immigrant communities to run. These groups have reported they are close to the 10,000 signatures they need to put the question on the ballot; if they do, voters can choose to expand by two, four, or not at all.

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Israel “Izzy” Patoka speaks, framed to the left of a person’s shadowed and blurry head.
Baltimore County Councilman Israel “Izzy” Patoka speaks during a town hall about public safety at the Edward A. Myerberg Center in Baltimore on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Since a council expansion would require a charter change, Patoka needed to cobble together a supermajority of five council members, instead of the usual four, to pass it. With only Ertel committed to vote for an expansion, the Democrat sought to win the votes of the council’s three Republicans.

Adding four members, Patoka said, was a nonstarter for the Republicans, as it could put them in a 6-3 minority.

And he would not be able to get their votes without maps that outlined what the new districts would look like. While the council is largely collegial and bipartisan, Patoka said he couldn’t blame his Republican colleagues for their skepticism that Democrats would draw a map that would give Republicans a fair chance.

So, Patoka said, the only path forward was one that added two members and drew a map that balanced the districts politically, while also creating the two minority-majority districts. He worked closely with Republicans David Marks and Wade Kach as well as Ertel. Patoka talked to Pat Young, but the Catonsville Democrat said he was hearing from activists and his own representative on the workgroup that they preferred an expansion by four.

Young put in two amendments, one to expand the council by four and another to pass the legislation without the maps. Both failed.

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“This whole time, it hasn’t sat right with me,” Young said of the maps, which were not the subject of public hearings.

Though he spoke eloquently about how the hallway was lined with photos of past council members who, for the most part, were white and male, and his desire to create better opportunities for his children’s generation, Young ultimately was the lone vote against the bill.

‘Cut the crap’

But just after the audience applauded Young’s eloquence and praised his leadership, Crandell brought the room back to reality.

“I am not going to try to match your voice or your leadership. I do have to say, though, that we have to cut through the crap here. This is about politics. This is about the Democratic Party doing what they do in Maryland, which is trying to grab more power on the Baltimore County Council,” he said.

Crandell said he would compromise and vote for two additional ones and the map, a change from his previous stance. Crandell would prove crucial to passage, as Young voted no and Democrat Julian Jones, the council’s sole Black member, was absent.

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The new map would split the west side district into two smaller ones where the Black population is far higher than the white population and where a minority candidate might prevail. Jones now represents that area.

Proposed new boundaries for Baltimore County Council districts. (Baltimore County government)

County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. on Monday night applauded the vote to expand, but added: “Should voters approve Council expansion, I strongly encourage Councilmembers to provide a more responsive, equitable and inclusive map-drawing process.”

After the hearing, Patoka said, “I am very happy. We made history tonight.”

While he acknowledged the room wasn’t exactly celebrating, Patoka said it’s different outside.

“I hear directly from hundreds and even thousands of people at community meetings and there has been almost unanimous support,” he said. “I think what you are hearing are loud voices that deafen the rest.”