Ulman wants to create environmental office

Administration is proposing a Cabinet-level position and an advisory panel as recommended by citizens group

October 10, 2007|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Sun reporter

The administration of County Executive Ken Ulman is moving to create a Cabinet-level environmental office and a companion advisory panel as recommended recently by a citizens commission, but the County Council's lone Republican member questioned at a meeting yesterday the need for new employees.

Another council member, Ellicott City Democrat Courtney Watson, expressed concern about the commission's use of the word require when discussing potential changes to homeowner association covenants that sometimes prohibit practices that could help the environment.

Can the county force private groups to change their rules, she asked, to allow things such as rain barrels, compost heaps or clotheslines?

Leaders of the recently ended 21-member Commission on the Environment and Sustainability told council members that they haven't fully explored such details but said they aren't looking for conflict.

"There's a lot of business as usual out there we have to change," said Mark Southerland, a private-industry ecologist and co-chair of the group.

Joshua Feldmark, executive director of the commission, said a bill will be introduced next month to create a smaller, permanent version of the 21-member volunteer group that worked for six months to recommend ways the county can promote environmental progress and energy savings. The bill would create a volunteer body, similar to other county boards and commissions, with 11 members.

Feldmark, a former County Council candidate who is a temporary employee until June 30, said another bill will follow in coming months to create a Cabinet-level Office of Environmental Sustainability - as the commission recommended. They presented their report to Ulman on Aug. 28.

Depending on legal interpretations of county code, Ulman might move quickly to officially create the office with just one employee, Feldmark, as a placeholder, or he might wait until spring's budget review to try to provide funds for several staff members.

"The group ... understood this would be a phased-in office," depending on budget constraints, Feldmark told council members at their monthly administrative gathering.

The commission report called for an office with five bureaus. Feldmark said a staff of seven employees might be needed, which drew scrutiny from western county Republican Councilman Greg Fox.

"Why not a director and a commission? Why are we creating additional positions and bureaucracy?" Fox asked, noting that expertise on environmental issues already exists in various state, county and private agencies. "I'd rather spend the money on energy efficiency and on projects," he said. "With space and everything, we're talking a $1 million-a-year group."

Feldmark said the five proposed bureaus in the new office - policy development; environmental compliance; energy management; education and outreach; and financial management - would involve issues that run through multiple existing county agencies and require skilled workers.

Several commission members added that one person can't do everything, and the group's recommendation is for a smaller operation than a full department of the environment.

"This was a big step back from a department. It's the most efficient, with the least cost," said Lee Walker Oxenham, the Sierra Club's representative on the commission. Several of the new positions could be filled by current employees, she suggested.

Watson reassured the five commission members who attended the meeting that council members question every potential new expense.

"You all have done groundbreaking work in Howard County. I know we are going to take this forward," she said.

Elizabeth Singer, the other commission co-chair, later said she enjoyed the discussion. "I thought it was fine," she said. "I think we should have a dialogue with the County Council."

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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