Optimism lifts Kittleman into second year in office

Kittleman on first year: 'It's more than I anticipated and it's even better than I thought it would be'

It's been a little more than a year since Allan Kittleman assembled his transition team in late 2014, promising to improve, not transform, Howard County and the foundation set by former County Executive Ken Ulman's administration.

His first moves as Howard County Executive – the first Republican to hold the position since 1998 – were contentious.

Within a few days of taking office, Kittleman overturned an executive order that Ulman signed into law in 2012 banning the sale of sugary drinks and high calorie snacks in county buildings. The decision drew praise from local vendors and criticism from public health advocates, including local nonprofit Horizon Foundation.

"We are disappointed that County Executive Kittleman has chosen to repeal, without a thorough review process, the county's nutritional standards that are helping to address the biggest public health threats we face in Howard County," read a statement from Horizon, which advocates for healthy lifestyles in Howard. "While we appreciate County Executive Kittleman's desire to address obesity and its related diseases, education alone -- without other community and environmental changes -- does not align with proven public health research.

The following summer, Kittleman vetoed a bill passed by the County Council placing nutritional restrictions on county government vending machines. His veto was then overturned by the Council and the bill was signed into law.

In his first week, Kittleman also let a few top county officials go, including the head of the human rights office, who was a strong supporter of Kittleman's opponent in the county executive race, and the head of the communications department — both were hired by Ulman.

But throughout the year Kittleman tackled many of his campaign promises – establishing local business initiatives, restructuring several county offices and patching up a $15.8 million deficit – and confronted unexpected issues like shrinking education funding from the state and backlash over a planned homeless center.

With this foundation set, Kittleman's leadership will be further tested as he crafts the budget for fiscal year 2017 with tepid growth predicted for the county; juggles development projects and the diversification of affordable housing; and attempts to phase out the county's storm water fee.

"It's more than I anticipated and it's even better than I thought it would be," Kittleman said.

Assessing his first year in office, Kittleman said he is proud of developing public trust in government, recounting one of his favorite campaign sayings, "If you don't have a seat at the table, you're on the menu."

Building more inclusiveness in the county decision-making process was one of his campaign promises. He held four town hall meetings in his first year, a move he says is critical to building community trust.

"I work for them," he said. "They don't work for me."

In the past year, Kittleman faced a seasoned County Council with a Democratic majority: four of its members are Democrats, one is Republican.

"Transition is always challenging," Ball wrote in an email. "Allan and his team have been really trying hard to get their bearings and working to settle in."

Kittleman acknowledges the fact that he and the Council don't always agree.

"It's okay to have difference[s]," he said. "You just can't let those difference[s] carry on to the next thing."

Ball, a Democrat who has worked with three county executives from both parties, said he was "pleased" that he and Kittleman worked together on funding for Oakland Mills and extending the Residential High Performance Building Credit program, and also that the two were "on the same side" of the gun ban on county property.

"Moving forward, I'm hopeful to work more closely with him toward numerous goals over my year as Chairman and throughout my final term as a Councilman," Ball wrote.

'Never a dull day'

Last summer, the nominations process caused political tensions between the council and Kittleman. The council delayed decisions on two of the County Executive's appointments in July, citing the need for more information about the nominees to make informed decisions.

"Our boards and commission members put a lot of time into serving the community," Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, a Democrat, said at the time. "It's part of our duty to find out what's going on with those. I'm not comfortable just replacing them" without more information.

A month before that, the council's Democrats had asked Kittleman to provide a list of qualifications for each of his appointees to a board or commission.

"I wanted to make sure the folks who were considered were the best-suited for the position and had the best ability to serve the community," said County Councilman Jon Weinstein, a Democrat.

Kittleman acknowledges the fact that he and the Council don't always agree.

"It's okay to have difference[s]," he said. "You just can't let those difference[s] carry on to the next thing."

Abby Hendrix, chairwoman of the county's Democratic Central Committee, called some of Kittleman's recommendations for appointments "unnecessary" and "politically divisive."

"The County Council definitely leads him," said Hendrix, "If it wasn't for the leadership of the County Council, there would have been a void in leadership — they have filled that void."

Hendrix said she hopes to see fresh ideas in Kittleman's vision for this year. Based on his first year, Kittleman appears to be an "administrator instead of leading in new ideas," she said.

The dynamic of the county executive's office and the Council will be tested as the Council takes up Kittleman's proposed legislation to roll back the county's stormwater fee. The bill — also supported by Greg Fox, the Council's lone Republican — would phase out the fee over two years. Although plans have not been finalized, the county's general fund would pay for stormwater projects instead.

Kittleman also plans to tackle looming development projects this year, including the Downtown Columbia development plan and revitalization of village centers.

"Hopefully, we will just have an agreement by the spring and then downtown will basically go gang busters," he said.

Purchased for $2.5 million in mid-February, Long Reach Village Center is another item on his list. An urban renewal plan is in the works, with recommendations based on five public engagement meetings, Kittleman said.

"That's been a difficult place for a long time so hopefully in 2016 we'll see the light at the end of the tunnel," he said.

The county is also pouring $50,000 into a feasibility study to explore revitalization plans for the Oakland Mills Village Center.

Despite obstacles along the way, Kittleman says "2016 should be a good year" for both projects.

He also plans to explore options to dualize roads between Route 108 and Linden Church Road in order to relieve congestion in the area between Great Star and Linden Church Road.

For Kittleman, the first year has flown by.

"It's hard to believe that a year ago, we were just walking around meeting people," he said "It's going fast. Never a dull day."

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