County Executive Ken Ulman is quickly putting his stamp on Howard County government, in both obvious and subtle ways.
Hiring and firing top staff and new department heads attracts most of the attention, but some lesser-noted actions also can be revealing - such as his choice for an official county vehicle and placing a temporary limit on his top appointees discussing policy without prior approval.
A 2007 silver Ford Escape Hybrid (gas and electric motor) with the child-booster seat in back will be Ulman's official vehicle, a symbolic fulfillment of a campaign pledge to move the county more toward environmentally friendly policies.
The $28,450 vehicle from Frederick Motor Co., a Frederick dealer that the county already had a contract with, replaces a larger, slightly more expensive gas-powered Ford Explorer that former Executive James N. Robey drove.
"I hope that it certainly makes a statement," Ulman said of his choice. "It's an initial statement for a vision and an agenda that will come into focus in the months to come on the environment and green technology."
Ulman also has asked department heads not to comment to reporters on public policy without clearance from the county's public information office "to make sure we're all on the same page during the transition period."
Ulman said the policy is temporary.
"This will be an open, accessible county government, but we want to make sure there are no mixed messages," he said.
The executive said he's not concerned with the majority of questions about the nuts and bolts of county actions and projects. But until he gets his full team on board and everyone knows what the administration policy is, the communications limits are in force, he said.
"Absolutely, this will be a temporary thing," he said.
The last County Council often skipped routine monthly administrative meetings, especially as this election year approached, but with four new members on the council, the mundane is suddenly important as a way of learning about how county government and the council work.
At the new council's first such meeting last week, members were introduced to the county's private bond-sale lawyers, discussed how to fill vacancies on the Board of Appeals and conducted a detailed, page-by-page review of the council's 52-page policies and procedure manual.
The meeting lasted three hours - an hour longer than scheduled.
Discussion included ways to give the public more online access to county records and information, the protocol of whether members or the chairman - or both - should represent the council at various events, and even who should turn off the lights in council offices at night.
New Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a west Columbia Democrat, said she was in her office late one night and found herself the last person around when she left.
"I went around and turned off everything I could find switches for," she said. "Do we need a policy?"
Council administrator Sheila Tolliver explained that most of the electronic machines ramp down to "sleep" mode when not in use and don't need to be turned off.
Ulman's replacement of longtime Howard County housing director Leonard S. Vaughan and his deputy, Neil J. Gaffney, raised a question about whether the moves had any political motive. But no one close to the issue said they think so.
Ulman is a Democrat, and Vaughan and Gaffney are Republicans. Gaffney's wife, Loretta, ran as a GOP candidate for the House of Delegates in District 13 this year and has worked as a legislative aide for Del. Gail H. Bates, one of the county's two Republican delegates. Both men also have attended Republican Party functions from time to time.
Ulman called Vaughan and Gaffney to his office late Monday and told them he was making a change, though he also asked them to help acting director Tom Carbo get up to speed, which they did Wednesday morning while cleaning out their Gateway building offices.
"I did feel strongly I owed him [Vaughan] the courtesy of a face-to-face meeting," Ulman said.
Ulman said he and two other top officials visited the housing office to brief the housing office staff before the news conference Tuesday. "We really value their work," he said.
Ulman said politics played no role in his decision, and neither Vaughan nor Gaffney said he saw any hint of that as a reason for the move.
Bates wasn't sure, but neither she nor Greg Fox, the new County Council's only Republican member, offered any criticism.
"My experience with both Neil and Leonard is that they have done an outstanding job," Bates said.
"It's interesting that he would choose to replace someone of that caliber," she added, referring to Vaughan's work in 2000 helping Baltimore fix problems in the city's much larger housing agency.
Fox said he's adopting a "wait-and-see" position on the housing move. He added he was pleased that Ulman made acting police Chief William McMahon the permanent chief. McMahon is a registered Republican.
All five council members were invited to Ulman's news conference Tuesday announcing his choice of Stacy Spann as housing director and Carbo as deputy director, though only the four Democrats attended.
Fox said he couldn't spare the time from his job at Constellation Energy.
Sigaty, whose west Columbia district used to be Ulman's, said she's "fascinated" by the decision.
"To me it's brilliant, because we're going to have as a director of housing somebody who actually grew up in affordable housing," she said.
"I'm truly hopeful that having him [Spann] as the head may change some of the discussion," Sigaty said, referring to residents who attach a stigma to lower-priced housing for limited-income people and don't want any built near them.