Council rookies aim at issues

Each sets priorities in preparing to take over duties of office Dec. 4

November 12, 2006|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,sun reporter

The new Howard County Council that will be sworn in Dec. 4 has one overriding quality that outgoing County Executive James N. Robey jokingly spotlighted for Ken Ulman, his replacement.

"Ken, you have the challenge of dealing with this rookie council - but you have the senior statesman Calvin Ball" to help, Robey said to laughter at Ulman's initial news conference this week, a reference to the fact that Ball - appointed to his east Columbia seat in April to fill a vacancy - is the only holdover on the five-member panel.

Rookies they may be, but each of the new council members has specific priorities for their new $49,000-a-year part-time jobs, even as they prepare to learn more about their duties next week at a two-day orientation retreat at Belmont Conference Center in Elkridge.

The three women elected to what was an all-male council represents a return to a gender mix of the 1970s and 1980s. The three - Jen Terrasa, Courtney Watson and Mary Kay Sigaty - also are familiar in the community from their previous service on the county's school board and Planning Board and on Columbia's village boards.

"I'm pleased there will be other women on the council with me," said Terrasa, an attorney who has worked at the Women's Law Center of Maryland in Towson.

The four Democrats have the luxury of being a super-majority, capable of approving any measure that three members agree on, though several said they are interested in cooperation, not political domination.

Greg Fox, who will represent the western county, was the only Republican elected.

"I really look forward to this council working together in a collaborative manner," Ball said. "I'd like us to build consensus."

Watson, a veteran community activist and school board member elected to represent Ellicott City and Elkridge, said she is intent on pushing for her top priority - reform of regulations dealing with "infill," or new development in older neighborhoods.

"It's definitely my No. 1 priority," she said. "I want to talk to the other council members. The best thing is to get consensus from the other members."

Sigaty, another school board member, was elected to represent west Columbia and Fulton. She said that, like Ulman, she remains interested in quickly approving a 14-story height limit on buildings in Columbia's Town Center.

"I do want to make sure we have height limits in place in case any more 23-story buildings come along," she said, referring to the proposed high-rise residential/retail building near the downtown lakefront.

Her other top issue, she said, is working with leaders in Wilde Lake village to find a new tenant for the former Giant supermarket that closed Sept. 28 and remains vacant.

Terrasa, who will represent North Laurel, Savage and parts of Kings Contrivance, Owen Brown and Guilford, said her initial focus will be on making sure to continue the effective constituent services that have been provided by Councilman Guy Guzzone, a Democrat who was elected to the House of Delegates in District 13.

"There are a lot of big things I plan to work on, but they start with getting oriented and working together" with other members, she said.

Fox might have the greatest challenge, but it is one that a lone Republican council member has faced before - and with some success.

"I'll talk to everybody," he said. "I've got to do what's right for the county. There are certain things I have an interest in addressing, but I don't want to get into it until I have a chance to sit down" with other members.

One thing that Fox said he plans to do is meet with outgoing Councilman Charles C. Feaga, a 14-year council veteran who was the only GOP member when he first took office in 1986.

Feaga made friends quickly among council Democrats. Two years later, when one of the county's most important and far reaching zoning bills came up, Feaga brought liberal Democrat Ruth U. Keeton with him as the key winning vote on the issue. That council rejected a bill strongly opposed by landowners and farmers that would have allowed one house per 20 acres in rural areas instead of the one home per 3-acre standard.

The lesson is that the majority party does not always vote as a bloc. This year, that allowed Republican Councilman Christopher J. Merdon to win the council chairmanship when David A. Rakes, a disaffected Democrat who later resigned, voted for him instead of Guzzone.

Feaga said the key to being effective in the minority is keeping party issues in the background.

"You can't put your Republican banner on your shoulder and go in there with a chip on your shoulder," Feaga said.

Former Councilman Allan H. Kittleman, now a Republican state senator, agreed.

"Greg needs to look for relationships on the council," he said. "There's not this great united Democratic Party" on every issue.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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