Howard County executive candidates Courtney Watson and Allan Kittleman talked affordable housing, business development, the environment and LGBTQ issues in their first post-primary forum, sponsored by the Howard County chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, or PFLAG.
The candidates tread familiar ground at Tuesday's debate, with Watson, a Democrat who currently sits on the County Council, presenting herself as the pick for Howard Countians happy with the county's success, while Kittleman, a Republican state senator, focused on proving that he could work across party lines.
Both candidates pledged support for LGBTQ issues and stressed that they would work with PFLAG and other groups to chip away at issues of youth homelessness and depression that have had a particularly strong impact on the LGBTQ community.
Here's a sample of each candidate's thoughts on a number of the topics discussed.
Inner Arbor plans for Symphony Woods
Both candidates said they supported the Inner Arbor Trust's plans for Symphony Woods, while noting that they had some concerns about how the process played out.
Kittleman: "I think the Inner Arbor plan is something that's good for Columbia... and is a good thing to bring young people to Howard County. I'm supportive of the plan; I want to work with those who may be concerned about it."
Watson: " I’m very excited about the Inner Arbor plan, and I am hoping that with the CA as a board... are able to come together with the board of the Inner Arbor Trust and reach some consensus abut the plan going forward."
Downtown Columbia redevelopment and affordable housing
Both candidates said they supported the broader goal of increasing affordable housing options, as part of the downtown Columbia redevelopment project and elsewhere. Watson pointed to the county's progress on affordable housing in mixed-income communities such as Ellicott City's Burgess Mill and Columbia's Monarch Mills, while Kittleman raised concerns about concentration of affordable housing.
Watson: "On a long-term plan for Howard County, we have a lot of separate efforts for affordable housing. I would like to bring all the efforts together, do a review of what we’ve done, where we can be successful and what we can do to improve... Mixed income development is the wave of the future for us in Howard County. So we want to make sure that that happens in downtown Columbia and all across Howard County."
Kittleman: "I hear a lot about the haves and the have nots, and a lot of it’s because of affordable housing... The problem we have in Howard County is we haven't had a consistent plan... We need to have leadership from the top to make sure everyone's involved… we need to work with the CA, developers, the community."
Both candidates praised the work of the county's Economic Development Authority and business incubator, but Kittleman said he would like to see some focus on more non-technology businesses. Watson said she would like to expand Howard County's presence as a cyber security industry employer.
Kittleman: "We need to make sure we have a government that looks favorably upon businesses, encourages them to expand... we've also got to focus on non-tech industries -- we need somebody with that vision, who's not just looking at the one thing that seems to be the neat thing right now." Kittleman added that he was concerned the county has plans to buy the Long Reach Village Center, and emphasized what he said is the importance of expanding the county's commercial tax base.
Watson: "Howard County has done a very good job adding jobs in the last eight years... so we're doing something right... Howard County can do better in the area of cybersecurity and that will be a focus of mine as county executive. That's just where the jobs are. That doesn’t mean you ignore everything else, it just means you recognize that as an opportunity."
Kittleman: "I think the biggest thing is to make sure that people have access to good, quality health care." He weighed in on the ban on sugary drinks in county buildings and at county-sponsored events, saying that he supported "personal responsibility."
Watson: "Going forward, my focus is very, very determinedly on mental health... Mental health, in my opinion, is the number one public health crisis in Howard County and across the country. If we can make even a 10 percent improvement in people’s awareness and ability to access care, we’ll be saving lives every day."
Both candidates said they support the controversial Common Core curriculum, but they want to make sure teachers have enough time to adjust.
Watson: "I think that in Howard County the argument over Common Core is probably not the argument we need to be having." Instead, she said, she would focus on creating equity throughout the school system with programs such as the Model Schools Initiative, which provides schools that have low-income attendance areas with additional funds.
Kittleman: "We need to compete in the world...You have to be willing to change to get better. As the county executive, I will be working with the superintendent of the Board of Education… to make sure our students can excel in the future."
Kittleman: "While I understand that we can have renewable energy goals, I don’t believe in picking winners and losers... I think we need to have a county that’s open to encouraging the use of renewables but not determining the renewables that should go forward."
Watson: Watson pointed to successes with the county's recycling and new composting programs, as well as county initiatives to increase the sustainability of govenrment buildings and expand its green vehicle fleet. "I would like to see Howard County be a zero-waste county in the future, in 2025 or 30. We have a long way to go to get there," she said.
In her closing statement, Watson focused on government transparency, lauding the current council's transparency efforts, such as televising council work sessions and making government documents available online. "The more we bring people into county government, the better we can do in terms of participatory government," she said. "Bottom line for me is – do you like your quality of life in Howard County now? Are you proud to be a resident? I am part of the decisions made to make Howard County that way. I would like to make sure that continues."
Kittleman concentrated his closing on his support for civil rights, including LGBTQ rights. He said it irked him when people implied that he supported same-sex marriage or the death penalty repeal as a political strategy with his sights set on being elected county executive. "I didn’t just sit back and vote, I worked for that, lobbied Republicans to vote for that," he said of the marriage equality bill. "I was out there working hard because I cared about it, not just because I cared about an election. I have the battle scars to prove it."