The Howard County Council's first public meeting since 2008 in its traditional quarters went off without a hitch Monday night, though some first-night jitters were evident.
"It is weird," said Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, a North Laurel/Savage Democrat who was still trying to get used to the gleaming new finishes and fixtures after the 75-minute, lightly attended public hearing. Terrasa's office was crammed with blue plastic bins of materials that still need to be unpacked. The county government will be spending the next few weeks moving back to the George Howard Building in Ellicott City from temporary offices in Columbia.
"It's so … modern!" said Council Chairwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, who couldn't get over the $23.5 million transformation from the old building's dowdy, old-shoe feel of the past. The council's small kitchen, for example, has one wall painted a deep red and a partially red floor.
The council quickly ran through a long list of appointments to county boards and commissions and briefly reviewed a list of other bills, including one submitted by Councilman Greg Fox, a Fulton Republican, to create a county veterans commission.
The only measure to attract any controversy was a bill designed to make more projects eligible for a share of the $10 million in remaining federal stimulus funding. The move was intended to help boost commercial projects along the redeveloping U.S. Route 1 corridor. To qualify for the money by the Jan. 1, 2011 deadline, finance director Sharon Greisz said, "They have to be ready to put the shovel into the dirt by the end of this year."
Several projects thought to be eligible are moving too slowly, so Council Resolution 115 would extend the boundary of the eligible area west from Interstate 95 for two miles.
Although the League of Women Voters supported the measure, Dale Schumacher, an Elkridge resident, opposed it on grounds that the line was too clumsy and imprecise.
"This is legislation by bludgeon," he said, using an arbitrary boundary that excludes areas that might benefit from the financial help, like along the U.S. Route 40 corridor or in one of Columbia's struggling village centers. He also complained the public only just learned about it. Schumacher had no complaint about the renovation, though.
Watson noted during the meeting that the renovation saved the county more than $50 million that a completely new building would have cost, but it was disorienting to return after nearly two years meeting at county school board headquarters.
"We've only been here a few hours. We just moved back in today," Watson told the audience. Lots of little things still need to be done. Some flat panel video screens weren't yet installed, artwork and the county seal are missing from the walls.
The large public lobby is brightly lit and gleaming, unlike the dim, cavelike appearance inside the building before the renovation. Watson said the public lobby furniture looked like airport lounge seating, all chrome and silver with tiny white trays for people's papers or laptop computers,
"I'm very pleasantly surprised," said Grace Kubofcik, who as League of Women Voters president attends nearly every council session. Having seen the 1976 George Howard Building completely gutted during the makeover that began in November 2008, she marveled at the new version.
"It's exciting and upbeat and gives you a sense we know what we're doing."
The Banneker Room, where the council holds sessions, is the same size and most of the furniture is the same, too, but it is much brighter, with more lights, a white, lower ceiling, more decorative carpeting and a much improved sound system. Some things never change, though.
Cathy Hudson, president of the Howard County Citizens Association and another regular at council meetings, had a comment echoed by several others.
"It's freezing," she said.