As the five-member Howard County Council's only Republican, Greg Fox may have more success influencing legislation than if he had political company.
In the council's toughest test so far - County Executive Ken Ulman's first budget - Fox persuaded two Columbia Democrats whose political views are generally in tune with Ulman's to support his proposal on fire taxes instead. Together, the three - Fox, Chairman Calvin Ball, a former firefighter, and Mary Kay Sigaty - cut $1.6 million from a fire contingency fund to keep the fire property tax rate from rising by 2 additional cents on rural properties. The move was a boon to Fox's mainly western county constituents.
Ulman plays down the significance of the vote, noting that his $1.3 billion operating budget and $354 million capital budget were passed nearly unchanged, but he agreed that this council may have less political tension than the previous one, made up of three Democrats and two Republicans.
"Maybe having a 4-1 split makes party less important," Ulman suggested, after recalling the politically tense group he served with on the council last term.
Ulman noted that in the end, the council's vote was 4-1 in favor of his main budget bill, with only Fox opposed.
"There was a sense of collegiality. It was a positive process," Ulman said about the new council's deliberations.
As the only GOP member, Fox has to be more realistic and less partisan, Ulman said.
"You're faced with the choice of being the firebrand or working together and trying to pick off smaller victories," he said.
Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, said she, too, feels the political split makes for a more open exchange.
"I have always felt that four Democrats on the council gives us more of an ability to work in a bipartisan manner," Watson said.
With three votes a majority, "it gives one [Democratic] member more flexibility. I'm happy with the outcome because I think everyone stood on their own two feet." Fox, she said, "knows he can't be effective ... by being a party-line player. We all feel he's been very productive on the council."
That's from someone who, like Democrat Jen Terrasa, did not vote for Fox's fire tax rate cut. Watson said she did not support the cut because she thought the tax relief was disproportionate, helping only residents in rural areas.
Terrasa said Fox "thought it was a good idea. I completely disagreed."
She said that she, too, believes that having a 4-1 majority gives Democrats more freedom to consider a wide range of ideas.
"If you have a 3-2 council," Terrasa said, the attitude among members is more likely to be "you're either with us or against us." She pointed out, however, that after weeks of careful study and scrutiny, even Fox could not come up with more than a token cut to Ulman's budget, which Terrasa believed addressed more police and environmental progress and other issues she thinks are important.
Sigaty, who supported Fox's cut, said the Republican "did an incredible amount of research, and when the research was done, the math was compelling."
Sigaty said she approached the budget in a nonpartisan problem-solving mode, as she did for two years on the nonpartisan county school board.
Ball said he has heard some criticism from Ulman and from the county firefighters' union of his vote to cut the fire contingency fund, but he defended his choice. "I'm going to look at every issue independently and try to do what I think is best."
Some suggested that Ball may have used the budget issue to show his vote can't be taken for granted, but he rejected that.
"The county executive and I align philosophically on most issues," he said. "Fox made a compelling argument, and I supported that."
Fox said he believes that with five new council members, "we're all trying to do the right thing."
Besides that, "I'm very pleased," he said, at the outcome of his fire tax initiative. "It's not like they didn't push me. They pushed me pretty hard," he said about his colleagues.
The Howard County Council boasts a new kind of majority.
With Fox's 40th birthday May 24, three of the five members - Fox, and Democrats Courtney Watson and Mary Kay Sigaty - are 40 or older, while two - Chairman Calvin Ball and Jen Terrasa, both Democrats - are still thirtysomethings.
Fox's life passage into middle age was celebrated, after a fashion, after the council's long budget voting session May 23.
At the customary communal lunch after the meeting, several council members donned black crepe-paper armbands, and Sigaty, the senior member at 57, declared the council in official mourning for Fox, who laughed along with the crowd.
Donna Thewes, a Republican from North Laurel who ran unsuccessfully for the County Council last year, has been appointed to the county elections board by Gov. Martin O'Malley as one of two new GOP members. Charles Cole, a former Orphan's Court judge who failed in a re-election bid, is the second new Republican member.
"It's a way I can still be involved but get away from a lot of the partisan politics," Thewes said. "I'm looking forward to working with the Democrats. We're all after the same thing."
With O'Malley's election, the board now has three Democratic members and two Republicans.
A swearing-in ceremony is scheduled for tomorrow, said board administrator Betty Nordaas.