Ulman is eager to get under way

Democrat promises changes, but main focus remains growth and retiree health deficit

December 03, 2006|By Gerald P. Merrell | Gerald P. Merrell,sun reporter

To understand what the last three weeks have been like for Ken Ulman, one only needs to look at his callback list. There are 200 messages.

It's not that Ulman is ignoring people. Indeed, he has spoken with hundreds, but the list grows faster than he is able to return the flood of calls, some simply wanting to congratulate him, others wanting jobs and some hoping to discuss issues or offer advice on which department heads to retain or dismiss.

As Kenneth Samuel Ulman prepares to be sworn in as the eighth county executive tomorrow evening, he has had a few other things on his mind.

"It's been a bit of a whirlwind," says the Democrat, referring to the time since his resounding victory Nov. 7.

And although there are many decisions still unresolved - and some that he declines to reveal yet - he promises change in style and substance from his predecessor, James N. Robey.

His administration, for example, will not support building 5,500 housing units in downtown Columbia - a key component of the current plan to transform it into an urban center.

Ulman also intends to seek additional staffing for the Police Department, calling the 380-officer department woefully inadequate.

He expects developers to dig deeper to help provide greater public amenities.

He wants the county to be a national leader in finding solutions to problems of public health, education and smart growth.

And Ulman expects his staff to read. "I will be assigning books ... to my staff members," he says. "I have a lot of ideas. I love people who want to solve problems and want to be focused on our challenges and look at models."

Mostly, he says, the administration will be "focused on delivering the most efficient and accountable government services. ... The nuts and bolts."

Ulman, 32, will be sworn in to the $147,000-a-year position at 7 p.m. tomorrow during ceremonies at Centennial High School that will include the swearing in of the County Council.

Ulman will succeed Robey, who served eight years but was prohibited from seeking a third term and successfully ran for the state Senate.

Ulman admires Robey, but he says he did not seek the office to keep things as they are.

"It's still a great county. The challenge is staying ahead of the curve and keeping us a great county and making us a better county," he says.

"It's easy to accept and promote the status quo, but if you do that, eventually you start to slide. If you're not constantly striving to improve, to do better, to look at efficiencies and to look at the future vision, eventually you'll start to slide."

Ulman will enter office facing two critical issues: growth and the county's multimillion-dollar deficit for future health care costs for county employees when they retire.

That deficit is estimated at $477 million, and Ulman says the county must devise and fund a plan to resolve the problem.

More broadly, he says, growth is a paramount issue.

That transcends whether a specific development is approved or rejected, Ulman says.

"What are we for? What are we about? What are our values?" he asks. "That goes toward growth many times. But the fact is what we allow to be built and how we do it defines who we are as a community.

"The land-use decisions we make do help define us broadly."

Two of the most contentious debates over development are the proposal for downtown Columbia and the approved 23-story residential-retail tower overlooking Lake Kittamaqundi in Columbia.

Ulman opposes the height of the tower, and he says he intends to talk with the developer, Florida-based WCI Communities Inc., to see if a compromise is possible.

And while he embraces the idea of developing downtown Columbia, he does not support the idea of authorizing 5,500 housing units there.

Ulman says he does not have a fixed figure in mind. But "5,500 units is ludicrous," he says. "It will never happen. It's too intense. There's no way we can handle it."

The final plan, he says, probably will "be closer to the 1,500-1,600" units sought by the Rouse Co. about two years ago, shortly before it was acquired by General Growth Properties Inc. Even that figure prompted broad opposition and was denied by the County Council.

That said, Ulman maintains that those who oppose development downtown are fighting a losing battle.

"Change is going to come," he says. "Some things are going to be different. The challenge is how do we shape it and make it so that it lifts us up and represents our values and we get the good things that we want?"

Ulman says he wants amenities such as public art, plazas, playgrounds, open space and environmentally friendly features such as "green" buildings downtown.

"My intentions certainly are to demand most of the stuff, if not all of it, from the developers," he says.

Ulman has had little time to reflect on his victory over Republican Christopher J. Merdon and independent C. Stephen Wallis. But he knows how he wants his administration to be viewed.

"That he continued the tradition of Howard County as a leader in delivering high-quality services and delivering a high quality of life - education, public safety, libraries, parks, all the sort of things that people have come to expect," he says.

"But in addition, that he made decisions on his values. He did what he felt was right, even if not always popular based on those values."

gerald.merrell@baltsun.com

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