An uncomfortable County Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty found herself holding the balance of power on a long list of Howard County executive Ken Ulman's budget priorities, but in the end, she provided a carefully considered margin of victory in a series of 3-2 votes.
Despite the 4-1 Democratic majority on the entire budget bill, the five-week process that concluded Thursday showed again that members are independent thinkers and don't always vote by party.
Sigaty showed she was no pushover.
Her willingness to oppose Ulman when she thought it was important got him to move in ways she wanted.
On the sensitive issue of Ulman's plan to buy one of four floors in a proposed Oakland Mills Village Center office building, Sigaty bargained hard, not agreeing to support the project until she got several assurances in writing just minutes before the 11 a.m. voting session.
"I wanted to vote for it," Sigaty said. "Revitalization is extremely important to me."
But she was disturbed by the parking situation at Oakland Mills, and she - like Ellicott City Democratic Council Chairman Courtney Watson and Fulton Republican Councilman Greg Fox - worried that the county not get stuck with a white elephant or pay too much.
"She raised some good points that I agreed with. She sat up here last evening" and worked for hours with his staff to craft an agreement, Ulman said Thursday after the council voting session.
In the agreement, the executive said no county purchase contract for the Meridian Square building would be executed until the developer rents at least 45 percent of the space, and the county would pay no more for space per square foot than the lowest price any previous purchaser pays.
In addition, he agreed to have the county review parking regulations countywide and make changes if needed. Ulman agreed that is needed as plans move forward for redevelopment of other older areas of the county, including Wilde Lake Village Center in Sigaty's district.
Is she worried that she'll be blamed if the building never happens and Oakland Mills residents are left with a vacant lot?
No, Sigaty said.
"If it doesn't get built, it was not a viable project," she said. "They [Oakland Mills residents] don't need an empty building."
Councilman Calvin Ball, an East Columbia Democrat who represents Oakland Mills, said he hopes the county's commitment to the project will send a message to other possible purchasers and to lenders.
"He's got several letters of intent" from prospective purchasers, Ball said about the developer.
Ball and Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, a North laurel-Savage Democrat, have proved Ulman's most reliable allies on the council, but without a third Democrat, they can't prevail.
Sigaty, who represents Ulman's former council district, said that generally "his priorities are priorities I support."
But that doesn't mean she'll automatically support everything he proposes, she said.
Watson, the council chairman, voted with Fox as part of the two-vote minority on a long list of budget amendments to slice some money from Ulman priorities like the big recycling bins he wants, the purchase of 14 hybrid Howard Transit buses and the Robinson Nature Center.
"Recycling is good," Watson said at one point."
She wants the Robinson Nature Center built, and she wants new, clean running buses, too, but she said that she's worried about revenues for fiscal 2010 in this uncertain economy.
Watson said she wanted to trim spending on some environmental initiatives and apply the money to badly needed school renovations she felt were more vital.
"I believe we all have values," Watson said. "It's just balancing these different opinions."
Fox said that although he lost nearly all the amendment votes, his views got a thorough hearing, and some ideas that he supported were incorporated into budget amendments everyone supported.
"I know the odds I'm faced with," he said. "I'm a realist. But if I don't prepare and do the hard work, there are no checks and balances."