Sarbanes Tries, Finally Finds County Council Meeting

political notebook

July 12, 2009|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,larry.carson@baltsun.com

Feeling confused while driving in Columbia is a common anxiety for the occasional visitor, as Rep. John Sarbanes found out Monday night when he tried to find the Howard County Council for a little televised chat.

The renovation of the county's offices in Ellicott City and the council's resulting relocation to quarters in east Columbia made the task all the harder.

The freshman Democrat, who represents east Columbia along with sections of Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties and Baltimore City, spent much of the day talking with county business owners, Chamber of Commerce officials and County Executive Ken Ulman, he said, followed by a public town hall meeting at the central library in Columbia.

But when he got to the county's temporary offices in east Columbia, he learned the council wasn't there, since they hold televised sessions at school board headquarters on Route 108.

Sarbanes arrived about 10 minutes after the meeting ended, but the four Democrats on the five-member council stuck around to greet him. Republican Greg Fox couldn't wait because of a deadline in his private job, he said later.

Sarbanes' message on the national debate over health care interested council members.

"It's all health care all day, every day for the next few weeks," the congressman said, adding that he hopes to see some kind of consensus version of health care reform legislation emerge sometime before Congress' August recess.

Councilwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, asked a few of the kinds of questions Sarbanes said Congress is struggling with.

Noting how many uninsured people in Howard were found to be eligible for existing insurance programs as the Healthy Howard health access plan began operations at a $1 million cost to the county, Watson said she doubts local governments can afford much more.

"How can we reach people without spending a lot of money?" she asked.

"Participation is one issue we're wrestling with," Sarbanes replied, adding that a reformed system could require individuals and businesses to participate.

That prompted Watson to ask how small businesses with slim profit margins could afford that, and Sarbanes agreed that wouldn't work.

"You can't simply mandate that a small business provide coverage without giving them a way to do it," he said. Those costs, along with the cost of more preventive measures to improve general health could cost more before long-term savings take hold, he said. But the time for change is now, he stressed. The public wants it and the current system is not sustainable.

"We can't have an economic recovery without health care reform," he said. "This is the moment to tackle it." Watson had one more observation, thinking about the long council discussion earlier on how to allow Columbia's village centers to redevelop.

"One good thing you're doing is you put into perspective issues we're dealing with," she said.

Sarbanes had one urgent question after the meeting: "Where's the nearest gas station?"

Patriotic duty

Oh, what an elected official won't do in the name of patriotism.

Decked out in men's sleeveless white undershirts worn over American flag-style boxer shorts, accented by knee-high black socks and black dress shoes and each carrying a lawn chair, two Howard County state senators and the female head of the County Council joined the 2009 edition of the Lawn Chair Marching Dads in the 10th annual River Hill July 4th parade.

Council chair Mary Kay Sigaty, a Democrat, became the first woman to march in the 16-member unit, which annually draws chuckles as the team heads off, singing marching songs, down Guilford Road to Great Star Drive.

Chris Wertman, the group's organizer, said his wife, Barbara, imported the idea from their native Illinois, and it's been a great success. This year, he said, he invited elected officials who represent River Hill or the nearby area to march, including Sigaty, whose socks weren't exactly regulation height, but who had enough good humor to compensate. She could be a "dad" for a day, Wertman said.

"When you get invited to do this, you don't turn it down," Sigaty said, laughing, as she helped decorate school board member Ellen Flynn Giles' Mustang convertible before posing for a group picture.

State Senate Minority Leader Allan H. Kittleman, a Republican, and Democrat James N. Robey - often rivals on issues like speed cameras - marched side by side, which led Kittleman to joke about the bipartisan cooperation.

Ulman preserved his dignity by appearing at the front of the parade in a more conventional outfit.

"I wanted to do it," he said about marching with the dads' unit, and his wife, Jaki, urged him to, but he felt he couldn't abandon his earlier plans to be at the parade's front with a group of supporters. County Councilman Greg Fox was also invited, Wertman said, but couldn't make it.

Robey, a former county executive, was reminded that he had declined an offer to appear in a bright yellow rubber star suit in 1999 to help advertise the last U.S. Census. Asked why he agreed to march with the Dads, he had a ready reply.

"I've lost a lot of my common sense, obviously."

Next year, most of the politicians will march in the 40th anniversary Longfellow neighborhood parade, they said.

They feel your pain

Although county election board members and alternates are appointees, not employees, they have voted to give up a collective $538.45 of their pay in solidarity with county and state workers suffering unpaid furloughs.

"It's really just a sense of showing camaraderie," said board chairwoman Ann Balcerzak. "We're in it with you," is their message, she said. The board chair is paid $8,000 a year. Two other regular members get $6,000 each and two alternate members are paid $4,000 each.

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