The first of two nights of Howard County legislative delegation hearings on 13 local bills seemed more like a school board meeting at times last night, with all but two of the seven bills under consideration dealing with board issues.
The proposal with the most impact would increase the board from five to seven members starting with the 2006 elections - a measure backed by the board. Four members attended the hearing in the County Council chambers in Ellicott City.
Sandra H. French, the board chairman, told the 11 legislators that enlarging the board would mean less stress for members who could apportion the work and many of the evening, weekend and daytime school visits among more people.
"There would be two more opportunities for people to feel they are represented by the Board of Education," she said, noting that having seven members would mean more chances for racial, geographic, economic and demographic diversity. State law requires a seven-member board when enrollment hits 50,000, she said, and Howard is about 2,500 shy of that.
The bill does not address the manner of election for board members, who run countywide - a system that French said she favors.
But Del. James E. Malone Jr., a Democrat who represents Elkridge, said he favors having five members elected from County Council districts and two at large because "people feel more represented if people from Elkridge have a person from Elkridge represent them."
The board opposed a bill that would require members appointed to fill a vacancy in the first half of a four-year term to run in the next election.
Board member Courtney Watson said that could potentially cycle three people through one board job in two years and would be disruptive.
Seats vacated by legislators and County Council members are filled by appointment. Del. Warren E. Miller, a western Howard Republican, is serving nearly a four-year term after being appointed in January.
To help attract more candidates to run for the difficult, $12,000-a-year job, the board submitted bills to allow once-a-month meetings in July and August instead of two, and make new board members eligible for the health insurance benefits of school employees.
In the two other bills discussed, the administration of County Executive James N. Robey is asking for $500,000 in matching state bond funding to begin restoration of Blandair Mansion in Columbia, and wants to ease restrictions on work release for nonviolent detention center inmates - especially those owing child support.
Although the Blandair request seemed routine - part of a plan to develop a 300-acre farm in central Columbia into a county park with the restored historic mansion as its centerpiece - one person opposed the bill to save the mansion.
James Oglethorpe, a Long Reach resident active in a tax protest group, said, "The state can't afford it, and Howard County certainly can't afford the matching $500,000." The money would help pay for a new roof, windows, doors and mechanical repairs. Oglethorpe said he would rather see the farm become a forest.
The delegation plans a hearing at 7:30 tonight in the council chambers to discuss six bills dealing with local taxes - five that would provide ways to increase local revenues to pay for school construction, and one, sponsored by Del. Gail H. Bates, a western county Republican, that would cut property taxes in half for residents 60 and older.
The legislators have scheduled a voting session on the bills for Dec. 3.
Statewide bills that would affect the county - limiting Columbia Association lien fee increases to 10 percent a year, make it easier to change the homeowners association bylaws, restrict location of methadone clinics and allow state school construction money to be used for modular classroom additions - will be the subject of a hearing after the General Assembly session begins Jan. 14.