As Howard County Council members described their frustrations in trying to craft a new policy governing signs for a redeveloped central Columbia to a group of League of Women Voters members, Susan Fingerman voiced a pet peeve some elected officials might find embarrassing — unsightly political campaign signs.
"They were really awful last year," she said at the biennial discussion between the League and council members at the George Howard Building on Feb. 5. "They seemed bigger than ever."
Ellicott City Democrat Courtney Watson and Fulton Republican Greg Fox were quick to fess up, though Watson said most candidates followed county sign rules. Legal questions about how to properly regulate them forced the county to suspend enforcement of the campaign sign laws last year.
"I put up a lot, " Watson said, "because I had the closest race. I felt it was required and necessary in order to hold on to the seat." Watson beat Robert Flanagan, a former Maryland transportation secretary and state delegate, by about 1,100 votes after a hard-fought campaign. Fingerman, one of about 35 league members who attended the exchange of views over pastries and fruit, said big campaign signs seemed to be clustered everywhere in an unsightly way.
County rules allow a maximum sign of 9 square feet in residential areas and 32 square feet in commercial areas.
But campaign signs had a strong defender within the League too — Democratic Party activist Carole Fisher, who finished the discussion with a simple observation.
"If that's the price of democracy, it's a very small price to pay," she said.
The meeting was a sort of companion event to an annual pre-General Assembly legislative breakfast the league holds in early January, said Grace Kubofcik, League president.
"Way back when, we used to do this annually," Kubofcik said about the general discussion sessions with council members, but the practice stopped, and has been revived as a biennial event instead.
"We hold it in the first year of a four-year term to get some vision of what people wanted to accomplish," Kubofcik said, and then again in the third year of a term to get a sense of how those goals are being addressed. "We also wanted more interaction with the council."
County Executive Ken Ulman was also invited but could not come, and West Columbia Democrat Mary Kay Sigaty was out of town and also missed the meeting. School Board Chairwoman Janet Siddiqui and board member Sandra French also attended.
Kubofcik praised the council as a group at the start of the informal, conversational event.
"These are some of the most open and receptive members as a group we have had," she said, noting that elected officials in other areas are not sometimes as forthcoming.
The conversation ranged from the upcoming General Plan, an 18-month process of drawing up a new guide for county growth, to looming transportation problems, establishing a countywide housing trust fund for more affordable housing, and then onto the much-discussed budget crisis and its effects. Other issues included the sign issue, last fall's early voting experience and the demise of the county's government television service — and what that means in terms of less public access to information.
Ulman is proposing a higher-profile Office of Transportation, which is under council consideration now. "We do need to really invest in our transit" to help get more people out of their cars, said Council Chairman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat. "But it's difficult" because of the bus system's expense.
Jen Terrasa, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, noted that the nearly complete loss of state highway repair and maintenance funds to the county is making things that much more difficult.
With neither a state budget adopted nor county budget proposed yet, council members said they couldn't foresee next fiscal year's budget. Meanwhile the issue of how to regulate signs in the proposed new urban-style downtown Columbia has been vexing.
"The more [information] we get presented to us, the more confused we're getting," Fox confessed. The problem, council members said, is that there's not much in the way of a model anywhere to look at and get a visual idea of what new, cutting-edge video signs look like. No one knows what Columbia should look like in 30 years, and there are no similar towns that have a look that could be a model.
"We're trying to figure out that vision," Terassa said.
Watson said she's not happy about having to study the issue. "I don't want to be a sign expert," she said, and there's been very little public reaction to the issue, leaving council members without strong guidance. Ball reminded everyone that the Columbia plan is cover 30 years, while sign technology is changing rapidly in ways that no one now may be able to predict.
"This is so hard, because this is so new," Watson said. "Our job is to make sure we know what we're voting on." All the members know that what happens in Columbia could influence plans for a later revision of the county's countywide sign rules, which are 40 years old.