A new political map that would add two new Montgomery County Council seats and reshape other districts was roundly criticized at the first public hearing Tuesday.
Residents of North Bethesda testified that they preferred to be in a district that included Bethesda or Rockville instead of where the new map would place them — with Kensington, Silver Spring and Takoma Park.
There were also concerns that redistricting in the upcounty area would split up Asian American communities. A representative of Kemp Mill’s Orthodox Jewish community said the new map would split a historic community.
And Marilyn Balcombe, president and CEO of the Gaithersburg-Germantown Chamber of Commerce and a candidate for the District 2 County Council seat, said the new map would cheat the upcounty of political power.
She said that although the map gave the east county its own district, the upcounty — which includes fast-growing areas like Germantown — would continue to be represented by one council member, even as the number of council districts expands from five to seven.
“I’m not suggesting any changes to the map,” Balcombe said. “What I’m asking is that everyone be honest about what went down. Not only did the upcounty not gain representation, we lost representation.”
An oddly shaped downcounty district on the proposed map — which detractors call a gerrymandered “bowtie” — provoked the greatest criticism.
The district runs south from North Bethesda, through Kensington, to Takoma Park and Silver Spring.
“We understand the district was created as an afterthought because, early on, constraints were created that Rockville and Gaithersburg must be together in one district and that Bethesda, Chevy Chase and Somerset had to be together in another district,” North Bethesda resident Paula Bienenfeld said.
She and other North Bethesda residents said commonality of interests and the redistricting goal of “compactness” should have prompted the mapmakers to include their neighborhood with a Rockville or Bethesda district.
“We are feeling marginalized,” Kaushambi Shah of North Bethesda said.
She testified that her neighbors are involved in mom groups in Bethesda and their children attend Bethesda schools.
She also said she feared that the County Council member representing the district would prioritize Silver Spring and Takoma Park due to their larger populations.
Betty Romero, a board member of Friends of White Flint, said, “It appears that the commission gave more weight to the desires of Gaithersburg and Rockville to be in one district than to North Bethesda’s desire to stay with Bethesda.”
Others also criticized the redistricting effort.
Ira Ungar, who lives in the Kemp Mill area, said dividing his neighborhood along Arcola Avenue between District 5 and District 6 would split the area’s Orthodox Jewish community.
He said “there are no Jewish establishments at all” in District 5 and “the current map is a clear error that will dilute the voice in our community.”
The redistricting process was touched off by both the expansion of the Montgomery County Council and the results of the 2020 U.S. census, which determined there have been substantial demographic changes in the county over the past decade.
The census found that the county’s population grew by more than 91,000 — from 971,284 to 1,062,710 — and became more diverse over the preceding decade, with nearly 60 percent of the county’s residents identifying as Latino, Black or Asian.
The proposed new County Council map was created by a panel of volunteers that included Democrats, Republicans, unaffiliated members and a Libertarian.
Two of those panel members, Jason Makstein and Nilmini Rubin, testified that they opposed the map — which their commission approved 6-5. They said the proposed map would split large segments of the Asian and Pacific Islander population that lives in the Clarksburg, Germantown, and Cedar Grove areas.
Yet, redistricting panel member Valerie Ervin, a former County Council member, called it a “historic” map that included a Latino plurality district based in Wheaton and an African American plurality district in the east county.
“Maryland is now the fourth most diverse state in the nation,” Ervin said. “This is who we are.”
Jacqueline Coolidge of the League of Women’s Voters of Montgomery County and Ashanti Martinez, a policy analyst at CASA, praised the redistricting commissioners’ effort and urged County Council members to adopt the proposed new political map without change.
The Montgomery County Council will hold its next public hearing on the new map on Thursday at 7:00 p.m.
Geographically, the layout of the seven proposed districts are:
- One that covers Gaithersburg and Rockville. Commissioners voted to include those cities in one district before drafting and revealing any final proposals
- One that covers the southwestern part of the county, including Bethesda, Chevy Chase, Potomac and part of Travilah. It’s the only district where minorities aren’t the majority of the population
- One that covers the northwestern part of the county, including North Potomac, Germantown and Clarksburg
- One that covers the east county, starting around the Four Corners neighborhood of Silver Spring and goes to Burtonsville to the northeast and Colesville to the northwest, and includes White Oak
- One that covers Takoma Park, most of Silver Spring and goes northwest into North Bethesda
- One that covers Forest Glen, Wheaton, Glenmont, Aspen Hill and Derwood
- One that covers the northeastern part of the county, spanning from Damascus down to Montgomery Village and Olney to the southeast