Calvin Ball last November made history after becoming the first person of color to serve as Howard County executive.
Ball is no stranger to politics. The Democrat represented Oakland Mills and portions of Columbia on the County Council for 12 years. But his new job is unlike his old.
Yes, he can still file legislation. But he has a longer list of responsibilities: the budget, being the face of the county on a state and national level, and mitigating flooding in Ellicott City.
Ball sat down with the Howard County Times earlier this week to reflect on his first 100 days in his new job, historic Ellicott City and how he hopes to improve.
This interview has been edited for clarity and space.
Q: You are the county executive. What is that like? Is it exciting?
A: It’s exciting. It’s still surreal. Almost every day I wake up feeling fulfilled. Almost like I won the lottery. I get to be in the best job I’ve ever had. Most of my adult life, I’ve had two to three jobs. [Now] I have one job and that one job is to make the world a better place one community at a time.
So you’ve had two to three jobs. What kind of jobs were they?
Usually in education. Like, for example, when I was running for county executive — which feels almost like a full-time job — I was also serving on the County Council. I was helping to run a program that was an educational program. And I was teaching part-time on the side. So just doing all those things, you’re pulling together all those disparate careers to fulfill aspects of your life. Whereas now I have one career that is totally fulfilling.
So, when you wake up every morning, what do you do?
I usually read. I try to read a lot —
Various papers. Of course, I read The Sun, The Post. I may look to see subject issues. Like, there might be particular journals on things I’m interested in. Whether it’s public safety, the environment … some issue that I’m working on … So I might read ‘Fast Company’ and see what are some innovative things they’re doing. I might look at what some other jurisdictions around the nation are doing. Whether it’s some counties in Northern Virginia or Portland, Oregon, or what have you. See if there are certain things that I may have missed that they’re doing that I might want to consider. I might read through budget briefings to prepare. And then session legislation to see if there are certain things that I need to be aware of. Those are some of the first things I do.
How has that changed from when you were on the council?
Of course, because I had multiple jobs, I had less time to be thoughtful and reflective. Also, I feel like I am more empowered to do something about it. Often times as a councilmember, if I had an idea, I would then bring it to the county executive. Or, especially while I was running for office, file it as an idea to do when I become county executive.
You mean, file it under your list of things —
My list of happy, exciting things to make Howard County the best county it can be.
So what things have you filed under there?
Some of the things I’ve already been working on … climate change. Signing onto the ‘We are still in’ declaration. I felt like that was a great opportunity. I felt like previously, under some county executives, we were really focused on environmental issues and being leaders. And not just being reactive. And I thought that I could bring that back. Public health is something that’s really important to me … We launched that suicide prevention plan … which is something that I hope can really stop those preventable suicide deaths. [From] 2014 to 2016 in our young people, [ages] 15 to 19, that was the leading cause of death. And that’s preventable death. And we can do better.
Making the transition from councilperson to county executive, what’s that like? How long did it take for you to clean out your desk downstairs to move upstairs?
Knowing we were at the end of my term, we had already begun some of the preliminary work of cleaning out our offices and preparing for just not being a County Council member. And the feeling and the preparation of either bringing everything home and filing it as a really exciting wild ride of public service or being able to expand my service to our community and do even more. And help make even more people’s dreams come true was exhilarating. So we had the boxes. It was more a matter of ‘were they coming home or were they coming upstairs?’
And they came upstairs.
They came upstairs and I haven't even opened most of them yet because I’ve been so busy. In fact, I have a room here that has boxes of things downstairs. Because as you can see, our walls are not yet adorned because I’ve just been focused on doing the job.
What were your expectations going into this job?
I expected I would be able to have a greater impact. That I would have the subject matter expertise and the energy of these departments where people just knew their jobs and knew how to do them well. And with my vision and my direction, we would really be able to take Howard County to new heights. And my hope, because I campaigned with many of them, was that we would have a council and a congressional delegation where we were all unified toward a shared vision. For the most part, there would be so much more positivity and progress made than we could even imagine.
Has that happened? Or is that happening?
In some respects, something that I didn't fully appreciate was having run for my first office in 2002 and then [being] the third longest serving councilmember in history, I had a certain experiential base that allowed me to look at this job almost like an expansion of the puzzle. Whereas many of our newly elected officials have never even seen any pieces of the puzzle. So we are all on various learning curves and we’ re doing it together and we’re also getting to know each other. Being on the campaign trail is very different from governing. And governing in a unified setting, there are certain ramifications and implications and I think that we are all learning those things these first three months.
Let’s talk about historic Ellicott City. A lot of the things that were announced in the Safe and Sound plan were already previously happening under the Kittleman administration. Right?
Well, there were a lot of new things. Like for example, the enhanced inspection and debris removal of nine waterways — it used to happen quarterly. And frankly, we recently had a wind event. And for the first time, we inspected those waterways outside a quarterly inspection schedule based upon the Safe and Sound plan. The new advanced emergency notification system … that’s something that is new … the exploration into a community development corporation, that’s something that was new. The legislation we filed for access to private land to remove debris from waterways, that was new. There are a lot of new things and we are moving forward with the progress on the upstream projects. These are exciting times.
What about the 10 buildings [once slated for demolition]? That’s something that everyone cares the most about. And there’s no information about it. What’s going on with that?
I think the most important thing people need to understand is that my goal is to have a plan that, of course, makes Ellicott City safe but also fully respects the historic and the cultural significance that makes it a national treasure. I’ve asked our team to look at ways we can create a safe Ellicott City but preserve as much as possible. And I think people are excited by that. And the demolition was never going to happen in the first 100 days. So nothing has been delayed. We’re just being thoughtful and exercising the kind of resilience to continue to make Ellicott City an economic engine and a culturally significant place people will want to visit.
But what would have happened in the first 100 days were the applications for the permits to demo. Has that happened? Even as a backstop. Say the county engineers come to you and say total demolition is the only way to keep the historic district safe?
Well, the first 100 days was always going to be about property acquisition. So we weren’t going to be moving forward with permits of demolition if we hadn’t even acquired the property. So those conversations have continued.
And they’re still happening?
They’re still happening.
When will they be done?
Well, as you know, with any negotiation you can’t always put a timeframe on it. But as soon as things are done, and we do have negotiations that respect the taxpayer dollar and move forward with our vision, there will be updates.
Are you concerned that there’s going to be another storm before any significant work on lower Main Street happens?
I think about the safety of all Howard County residents every day. Every time there was a weather event, snow storm … it is the first priority for me to keep our residents as safe as possible. And my hope is that as we are moving forward with a sense of urgency and being thoughtful, we will be well prepared for the storms on the horizon.