Council poised to expand the voice of youths in county government

The Baltimore Sun

Politicians are paying more attention to the voice of youth these days, from Barack Obama's groundbreaking presidential campaign to County Council members getting Facebook pages.

But young people are poised to take another step in Howard with the inclusion of youth members on the Women's Commission and the Recreation and Parks Board. The council must first pass legislation to allow it, but that seems a foregone conclusion because all five members are sponsoring the bills. A vote is scheduled for Jan. 5.

"The voice of our youth is an important voice in Howard County," council Chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty said at last week's public hearing on the measures.

Sigaty said the bills are the culmination of a nine-month effort to involve young people more in county government, including a Youth Summit held in April that drew 160 students from 29 county middle and high schools.

But formalizing a role for youth now doesn't mean young people haven't been involved in government before.

Brian Meskin, 33, of Fulton came to the hearing to tell how in 1989, at age 13, he testified before the council about the need for a law to require children to wear helmets while riding bicycles. A friend had died after a bicycle accident, and he saw the results of the tragedy, he said. It motivated him to get involved in pushing for a county helmet law that became a national model.

"We made a difference," he said.

Now Meskin wants to see his three young children become similarly involved as they grow up. He later also served as a nonvoting member of the county school board while a student at Glenelg High School, he said.

Josh Manley, a Howard High School student, participated on the citizens committee working on plans for Blandair Park in east Columbia. The 16-year-old Elkridge resident told the council he has learned a few things.

"There are no short meetings, concepts can be esoteric, and the student member will be held accountable," he said to chuckles.

Adejire Bademosi, 16, who attends Marriotts Ridge High School and is the current student member on the school board, said she came to show her support for the idea of youth participation on boards and commissions. Shimluash Braha, 17, a Centennial High School student, said she worked last summer as Sigaty's intern after e-mailing her to request the job.

"This should be called 'happy legislation' because I never heard a negative comment about it," she said. "We are articulate, interested, and we can bring a unique perspective."

Josh Michael, 21, a student at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, told the council he has served as a student school board member in the county, on the Maryland Higher Education Commission, on the state school board and on the University of Maryland Board of Regents. He called the experience "awesome."

"It can change your perspective," Michael said, adding that it led to his interest in public service.

A pep talk for council

Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr., who is also the outgoing president of the Maryland Association of Counties, made a rare appearance in Howard last week for a casual dinner with five County Council members.

Smith was joined by David Bliden, who is retiring as MACO's executive director after 18 years. The two told council members that they see the organization's role as more crucial than ever this winter, as Gov. Martin O'Malley and the General Assembly consider more cuts in the fiscal 2010 state budget.

Smith urged the council members to stay active and continue helping MACO remain a potent voice for local governments across Maryland. That unity has also helped keep state funding for school construction a top priority.

"Because we have a good turnout from every jurisdiction, when we do take a position, it has credibility," Smith told the group, which gathered at LeeLynn's restaurant near Dorsey Search Village Center.

The association's support for slot-machine gambling over the past few years, for example, helped preserve local control over land where casinos might be placed.

"Leaders appreciated the fact that we're active in support of slots," Smith said. "We had that credit."

Because of MACO's willingness to compromise and remain nonpartisan, local governments gained leverage with state officials. That, and O'Malley's service as mayor of Baltimore, helped local governments.

"We're fortunate to have a governor who's sat in your shoes," Bliden said.

Bliden plans to remain at MACO through the 90-day session to help the new director, Mike Sanderson.

The Political Notebook column in the Dec. 20 edition of the Howard County section included the incorrect spelling of the name Brian Meshkin.The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.
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