As Howard County Council members sit in the three-decade-old George Howard Building working through budget requests, including $16.6 million as a down payment for the redevelopment of the government complex, the place is already changing -- literally right under their feet.
The stained, scuffed, bright orange carpeting in the two large meeting rooms next to the council's offices that generations of county residents have tried to ignore is finally gone, replaced by a muted blue-gray pattern called "sage filligree."
James M. Irvin, the public works director, said the entire second floor housing his department was redone with the new carpeting, and enough was left over to do the two first-floor public meeting rooms -- one of which the council is using for budget discussions.
"There was just so much grief about it," Irvin said about the Saturday Night Fever-era carpeting that County Executive Ken Ulman also joked about after taking office. The new glued-on carpet squares cost $87,560 and were used to re-cover 3,145 square feet on both floors. A few hundred square feet of spare carpet was bought for future repairs.
Irvin said that when the aged orange carpeting was removed, "we got enough paper clips to last 50 years."
Politicians' park day
When a sitting governor comes to visit, local politicians turn out, even if on the surface there doesn't seem to be much of substance going on.
Five of Howard County's eight delegates and one of the county's three senators, plus four of the five County Council members and County Executive Ken Ulman joined Gov. Martin O'Malley at Meadowbrook Park in Ellicott City on a breezy, warm, sunny afternoon last week in what seemed like a celebration.
O'Malley asked to visit as part of a statewide tour to solidify support for his administration, especially with a grimmer year on the horizon for 2008, when state revenues are estimated to fall short of expenditures by about $1.5 billion. He has been making appearances to thank local delegations for their efforts during the recently ended General Assembly session, and to get some publicity along the way.
The one-year old park, sporting the largest playground in the county, was built with help from the state's Program Open Space and served as a backdrop for the event. Ulman and his wife, Jaki, took advantage to get in some playground time with their youngest daughter, Lily, 1, while they awaited O'Malley's arrival.
The group walked through the still-developing park to a covered picnic pavilion for a box lunch and a few short speeches, greeting some surprised young mothers and children along with way.
The elected officials were all Democrats -- except for Del. Gail H. Bates, a Republican supporter of former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who said she came because "I honor the [governor's] office." She exchanged a smile and a handshake with O'Malley, and stood to clap with the others when he was introduced to speak after lunch.
Ulman and county recreation officials showed O'Malley around, explaining that $3 million in state Program Open Space money helped buy the 84-acre former farm in 1984, holding it until the first phase of the park on 36 acres of the land was completed last year. The parking lots, playground, ball fields and picnic pavilion are to be joined next year by a 35,000-square-foot indoor athletic building for roller hockey and playing courts, said Gary J. Arthur, county recreation director .
The event had the appearance of a political love fest between a governor delighted to have so many Democrats to support his ideas, and county officials equally happy to have a like-minded friend in Annapolis.
O'Malley used the weather to joke about prosperous, successful Howard County. "It's always like this in Howard county," he laughed, referring to the brilliant, warm sunshine and the refreshing breeze.
"It's quite a thrill to have a governor who's a partner," Ulman said, mentioning state aid for recreation and school construction projects, as well as the high priority both leaders are putting on reducing pollution and saving energy.
The governor talked about using "every penny of open-space money for open space," a slap at Ehrlich, who diverted some money to get through the last budget crunch. He joked that the General Assembly's work got less publicity this year because there was less bickering, adding that maybe he should "go back and veto a few things." That was another swipe at Ehrlich, whose vetoes were often overridden by the Democratic legislature.
As Baltimore's mayor, O'Malley continued, "I know what it's like to have a partner, and what it's like not to have a partner," he said, referring to "one shining year when both the federal and state governments had a Democrat in the top office.
"I cannot be effective for this big state unless I have a strong local government" for support, he said.
Who was that man?
Who was that man with the clean-shaven upper lip?
State Sen. James N. Robey, the former county executive and police chief who has worn a thick, bushy mustache for more than two decades, showed up at Meadowbrook Park with a bare lip, joking that his wife, Janet, took two days to notice the change.
Asked why he did it, Robey shrugged. No special reason, he said. "It's like a woman changing her hairstyle."