It’s that feeling of déjà vu all over again, as Democrat Calvin Ball and Republican Allan Kittleman battle it out for the top job in Howard County, just as they did four years ago.
The only difference — Ball is fighting to keep his seat as county executive, which he took away from Kittleman in 2018, while Kittleman is hoping to regain his seat in the Nov. 8 general election.
“Public service is very important to me,” Kittleman said. “I’m running because I think people in Howard County deserve better.”
Kittleman, 64, a Republican who served as county executive from 2014 to 2018, said his commitment to public service was shaped at an early age by his father, the late Sen. Robert Kittleman, who was a member of the Maryland General Assembly from 2002 to 2004. He died Sept. 11, 2004.
Ball, 47, a Democrat who served on the Howard County Council from April 2006 to December 2018, before being elected county executive, said he wants another four years to build on his administration’s successes, such as forest conservation, climate change and affordable housing.
“I want another term so I can continue to foster the best quality of life for all who live, work or visit Howard County,” Ball said.
On election night four years ago, Kittleman went to Ball’s victory party to concede in person.
Both men in the weeks following the election talked about civility and bipartisanship, saying divisive leaders in Washington, D.C., could learn something.
Four years later, that camaraderie between the two has soured mostly due to a public records request.
In June 2021, former Maryland Del. Bob Flanagan, a Republican, filed a request for emails exchanged by Ball and other county employees and a lobbyist, The Baltimore Sun reported in August.
Flanagan said it was a matter of transparency.
The county identified 748 emails, but said it couldn’t release nearly 497 of them, because doing so would reveal either internal deliberations or information protected by attorney-client privilege.
Flanagan, a lawyer who served as transportation secretary under Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, filed a lawsuit in August 2021 in Howard County Circuit Court seeking the emails.
The civil case, which a judge agreed to dismiss in July, after the county acknowledged the violations and agreed to pay the maximum penalties, prompted Kittleman to start running ads highlighting the issue.
Eventually, lawyers in Howard County’s Office of Law reviewed the materials and the county released nearly every email to Flanagan by the end of 2021.
This issue also prompted legislation introduced by Republican Councilman David Yungmann, and ultimately passed by the Howard County Council, that requires county lawyers to review requested records before any are withheld or redacted.
Yungmann told The Baltimore Sun that the goal of his bill was to remove politics — or at least more of the potential for political motivations — from the process.
Ball said in a recent interview, that under his administration public records requests have “skyrocketed,” often from Kittleman supporters. Ball said the entire issue has been politicized.
In 2014, when Kittleman was first elected, the county executive’s office received about 90 requests. So far in 2022, Ball said, the number is approaching 1,000 — the highest ever. The second highest number of requests was in 2021, with 758.
“All the requested emails have been given to (Flanagan),” Ball said. “There are no issues alleged from (Kittleman’s) campaign that have been found to be illegal.”
Kittleman, who has said he had no involvement in Flanagan’s case, said in a recent interview that it’s all about transparency and trust.
“People have to know about who is working in (Ball’s) office, and being paid by his campaign,” Kittleman said. “Why did he do that? What else is he hiding? No one has done what he has done.”
Kittleman is referring to Ball’s sister-in-law, Jamila Ratliff, who was Ball’s campaign manager in 2018, and worked for the county. Records showed she was being paid by his 2022 campaign, The Baltimore Sun reported.
Ratliff left county employment in February, to return full-time as Ball’s campaign manager.
Ratliff told The Baltimore Sun that it was “appropriate and common for public employees to engage in political work on their own time.”
“I was fully transparent about my work with Mr. Ball’s campaign throughout my tenure as a Howard County employee,” she said.
School safety and redistricting
When Howard County voters cast ballots this fall, they will have to decide whether it’s the emails or issues such as crime and schools that they care about.
Kittleman said school safety is his top priority if he wins in November. His first move will be to work with the superintendent to reinstate and fund school resource officers into the county’s public middle schools.
Kittleman said SROs greatly improve classroom safety. He points to the Center for Homeland Defense & Security — a naval postgraduate school in Monterey, Calif. — which finds that SROs reduce the average duration of an incident from eight to two minutes.
SROs are posted at all 12 high schools plus the Homewood Center, and at one time there were six officers who split assignments across the county’s middle schools.
In June 2021, a memorandum of understanding approved by the Howard County Board of Education removed SROs from middle schools.
Ball endorsed the decision, which came more than a year after a petition signed by about 400 current and former county students listed demands, including the removal of SROs, to address structural racism in the school system.
In April 2021, Ball recommended that SROs be removed from the middle schools.
“People were very upset about that,” Kittleman said.
Ball has said he listened to the public’s concerns and analyzed the program’s effectiveness before making recommendations for systemic changes, which also includes having the SROs not wear their daily uniform, but instead dress more casually.
Howard County’s schools superintendent also has presented a redistricting recommendation that aims to reduce crowding at several county high schools, and reassigns students to high school 13 when it opens near Jessup in fall 2023. Ball objected to the plan, because of the impact student reassignments would have on Elkridge.
Kittleman accuses Ball of getting involved in the redistricting debate.
“It’s disingenuous of Dr. Ball to say he was not involved,” Kittleman said. “School redistricting has become more political, and no longer focused on capacity and proximity.”
On Sept. 2, Ball and County Council member Opel Jones released a joint letter criticizing the redistricting plan, saying it neglects years of groundwork laid for the high school 14 project, but Ball insists he had no role in developing the plan.
In October 2020, Ball announced Troy Park as the county’s preferred site for high school 14 to serve the Elkridge community. The proposed school is included in the Howard County Public School System’s Long-Range Master Plan. In June, the county entered into an agreement to purchase the 21-acre Camp Ilchester property to provide acreage needed to satisfy state park conversion requirements for construction of high school 14 at Troy Park.
Ball is proud of his record on combating crime in the county. He points to the fifth consecutive year Columbia has been named the “Safest City in America.”
A survey, released earlier this month by WalletHub compared 182 cities, including the 150 most populated in the country.
“Since becoming Howard County executive in 2018, I have remained committed to creating the safest communities through inclusive outreach and comprehensive investments in public safety, while improving transparency and accountability,” Ball stated in a news release. “This accolade is a testament to the excellent quality of life we cherish in Howard County.”
Ball said he has added 24 officers to the Howard County Police Department and implemented the expansion of the body camera program for all sworn police officers.
The Maryland Police Accountability Act of 2021 was enacted in March 2021 by the Maryland General Assembly. Among other requirements, it states all law enforcement agencies in the state must provide officers who regularly interact with members of the public as part of their official duties with a body-worn camera by 2025.
Under his leadership, Ball said robberies declined 46% between 2019 and 2021, assaults dropped by 13% during that same time period, and burglaries declined by 33%. Violent crimes dropped by 30%, with aggravated assaults down by about 45%.
Finally, Ball said his administration formed the first civilian Police Accountability Board at a cost of nearly $200,000.
The Maryland Police Accountability Act of 2021, effective July 1, 2022. The Act establishes requirements for police accountability and discipline. This includes a requirement that each county shall have a Police Accountability Board.
Kittleman disagrees with Ball’s assertions on decreasing crime.
“I talk to residents all across Howard, and nobody says they ‘feel safer than they did four years ago,’” Kittleman said. “Homicides have hit record levels over the last four years, and everyone I talk to feels less safe.”
When Ball took office in 2018 there was one homicide, according to statistics from the Howard County Police Department. That number jumped to eight in 2019, seven in 2020 and 11 in 2021. From January to March this year, there were two homicides recorded, according to the Howard Police Department’s first quarter crime report for 2022, the most recent statistics available.
“People in Howard don’t feel safe,” Kittleman said.
Ellicott City flooding
Heavy rains in 2016 and 2018 caused major flooding in Ellicott City’s historic district, leaving three people dead and millions of dollars in property destruction.
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Since taking office Ball said he’s made addressing flooding in Ellicott City a top priority. In May 2019, Ball announced the Ellicott City Safe and Sound flood mitigation plan, which includes seven large capital projects meant to retain and safely convey water to the Patapsco River. The plan, estimated to cost between $113 million and $140 million, is expected to reduce potential floodwaters on Main Street and preserve six of the 10 buildings previously slated for demolition.
The latest portion of the project to be completed, according to an Oct. 17 announcement from Ball’s office, is the H7 Pond, upstream from the historic city. The pond has the capacity to hold enough stormwater to cover a football field 13 feet high and is designed to remain dry in usual circumstances, and fill with run-off during heavy storms.
“This pond is the first major public works project to be completed through our Ellicott City Safe and Sound plan and is one of the largest and most important projects in the history of Howard County,” Ball said.
Kittleman said during his term as county executive his administration developed a bipartisan plan focused on a comprehensive series of integrated projects, through retention and expanded stream channels, that would have dramatically reduced the risk of flooding that threatened the lives of the people who live, work and visit Ellicott City.
Had this plan been implemented as designed, Kittleman said, significant progress would have been made by now, including immediately reducing the risk to life and property by removing buildings in harm’s way and creating an open space for people to enjoy.
In the weeks leading up to the election, it’s clear Kittleman and Ball will continue to fight to earn the county executive’s seat.
What isn’t clear is whether the two men will handle the results this year as amicably as they did in 2018.