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Nominations battle reveals tension between Kittleman and council

Howard County Council nameplates

The Howard County Council voted to approve dozens of appointments and some high-profile bills Monday night, in its second to last legislative session before the council's summer recess.

But perhaps even more significant were the votes they didn't take.

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In an apparent rebuke to County Executive Allan Kittleman, a majority of the council voted to delay making decisions on two nominations, one of which has generated controversy over the past month.

Council members tabled the appointments of Susan Garber, a community activist who had been nominated for the Planning Board; and Ivan Betancourt, a volunteer firefighter who was nominated for the Human Rights Commission.

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Once tabled, approval for an appointment can be delayed indefinitely.

The nomination process has become the focal point for political tensions between Kittleman, a Republican, and the Democrat-dominated council.

Late last week, the county executive made an unusual public appeal to supporters on his campaign website, kittleman.com, when he launched a petition calling on the council to take an up or down vote on Garber's appointment, rather than tabling it.

"Susan will be a terrific addition to the planning board," the petition, posted to the site on Friday, says. "She is as well qualified – or more qualified – than other Planning Board appointees. She has the support of many in the community."

Meanwhile, the council's Democrats have been trying to expand the checklist of information the county executive provides when presenting his nominations.

Last month, council members – though Republican Councilman Greg Fox said he was not consulted – sent a letter to the administration requesting that Kittleman provide a list of qualifications for each person he nominates for a board or commission. They also asked for Kittleman to specify whether his appointee would replace a current or former board member, and to give a rationale for why that person was being replaced.

"Our boards and commission members put a lot of time into serving the community," Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, a Democrat, said Monday night. "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.

"I would say it's a good thing to be transparent and open," Councilman Calvin Ball, also a Democrat, said. "If the administration feels the appointees they're nominating would be better, can't we just have that conversation?"

Kittleman has pointed out that no other Howard County executive has been asked to justify his or her appointments as thoroughly.

"It seems that the council is starting to use Washington-style politics here in Howard County," he said Monday, before the vote.

Fox also accused his Democratic colleagues of playing politics.

"The biggest questions are, are people qualified for the role?" he said. "Whether they want to stay or not, this is the prerogative of the county executive ... who they're replacing is irrelevant."

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Garber, the president of the Savage Community Association and a citizen activist who has spoken up on multiple land-use and zoning matters, was nominated for the Planning Board in April. If confirmed, she would replace current member Josh Tzuker, whose term expired at the end of May.

Her appointment has generated controversy in the community based on some of the positions she's taken on development, such as opposing efficiency apartments for the homeless on Guilford Road — she says she would rather see housing for the homeless spread throughout the community — and for a letter she wrote last summer, in which she accused the local teachers union of being "greedy" and "manipulative" during the contract negotiation process.

Betancourt's nomination has not received the same level of attention, but Ball said Monday he had heard the volunteer firefighter would be replacing current Human Rights Commission Chairwoman Genevievette Walker-Lightfoot.

The Human Rights Commission was the subject of tense battles between the council and Kittleman's administration earlier this year, after commission members pushed back against a recommendation from the county executive's transition team to look at shifting most of their adjudicatory role to an independent hearing examiner.

Nutritional standards approved

The council did vote to approve a bill proposed by Ball that would create a set of nutritional standards for vending machines on county property.

The bill revives some of the health guidelines created by former County Executive Ken Ulman's 2012 executive order, which caused a stir last summer among vendors who chafed at government restrictions on the food and drinks they could serve at county-sponsored events. Kittleman repealed the order as his first act in office.

Ball's bill offers more exemptions and focuses on eliminating junk food in "youth-oriented" areas. The final bill passed Monday night, by a 4-1 vote – Fox opposed the legislation – was stripped of some of its more controversial requirements, such as regulations on concessions stands and a requirement to provide water free of charge at all county events.

That wasn't enough for a soft drink industry representative, who said the bill would actually "limit healthy choices" by making it harder to sell some comparatively lower calorie options, such as Vitamin water and Honest Tea, in the county's vending machines.

"The council has now made themselves the arbiter of picking and choosing what they feel is a healthy beverage and what is not," Maryland/Delaware/D.C. Beverage Association lobbyist Ellen Valentino said.

Fox concurred. "There continues to be significant problems with this bill and I think a lot of them will be more apparent over the coming days," he said.

Public health advocates and several community groups celebrated the legislation's passage.

"Howard County Government has long been a leader in promoting public health, and this legislation continues in that proud tradition," Nicolette Highsmith Vernick, the president and CEO of public health nonprofit Horizon Foundation, which worked with Ball on the legislation, said in a statement. "Residents, visitors and employees will now have a full range of healthy food and drink choices available on Howard County Government property, and that is a win for us all."

Also Monday night, the council decided to table a ban on vaping indoors proposed by Councilman Jon Weinstein. Weinstein, a Democrat, said he wanted more time to work out definitions in the bill in collaboration with Fox.

The council will hold one more voting session, on July 31, before its August recess.

An earlier version of this story misstated the date of Susan Garber's nomination. Kittleman submitted the nomination in April, but it wasn't introduced until June.  

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