Republican Allan H. Kittleman talks about his race with Democrat Courtney Watson for Howard County Executive. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
Howard County Executive-elect Allan Kittleman likes to refer to himself as a personal freedom guy. That's why he supported marriage equality, the decriminalization of marijuana possession and a ban on discrimination against transgender people. And it was in similar terms that he couched what will evidently be his top priority when taking office in December: overturning County Executive Ken Ulman's policy to restrict the sale of sugary beverages on county property. "I think parents should be making that decision, not the government," Mr. Kittleman said in an interview last week on WBAL radio.
With all due respect, we believe Mr. Kittleman is misconstruing the issue. The question here is not one of personal freedom or government acting in loco parentis. In fact, parents have every right to continue loading their kids up with sugary sodas when they go to the park or the library. Howard Countians can eat or drink whatever they like in county office buildings. Mr. Ulman's two-year-old executive order didn't ban anything at all. Individuals retain every right to make unhealthy choices. What Mr. Ulman's policy says is simply that the county government will not abet those bad decisions by making unhealthy drinks available in its vending machines, cafeterias and snack bars.
The policy was not created lightly or arbitrarily. It was drafted in response to the drastic rise in obesity in recent decades, and its terms were modeled on research from Institute of Medicine and the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. (The difficulty of establishing similarly rigorous standards for food explains why planned restrictions on the sale of packaged food have not yet gone into effect.) During the last two years, the county has incorporated the policy into the terms of its contracts with the vendors who operate on county property. If Mr. Kittleman issued a countermanding executive order, requirements that 25 percent of the offerings in vending machines be diet sodas, juices or water would remain in effect.
Another point worth considering is that Mr. Ulman has exercised a prudent degree of flexibility in applying the policy. After some outcry this summer from vendors at the county's 4th of July celebration, Mr. Ulman agreed to no longer enforce the policy at county events that don't take place on county property. (The 4th of July festival takes place on Columbia Association-owned land, as does the Wine in the Woods event.)
Mr. Kittleman mentioned during his WBAL interview that he has heard numerous complaints from parents with children in recreational sports leagues about the inability to sell sugary drinks on the sidelines, which had been an important fund-raising activity for many teams. Mr. Ulman heard the same complaints, and he convened a task force of officials from the health and parks departments, vendors and others to examine that and other issues. The work of that group is ongoing and is not expected to be completed until the end of the year. The least Mr. Kittleman could do would be to wait to see what it says.
During the same interview, Mr. Kittleman said he was cognizant that he was a Republican elected in a Democratic-leaning county, and that his priority was to build coalitions across the political spectrum. "My biggest goal right now is to focus on how we can improve lives for people in Howard County and how we can bring together the coalition I had when I ran for office," he said. "We're going to focus on how we can work together and bring consensus." Indeed, although he identified the sugary drink policy repeal as his first order of business, it pales in importance next to his real priorities, like lowering the achievement gap in the schools. Making his first act in office the repudiation of a signature issue of his popular Democratic predecessor would hardly seem like a productive use of political capital.
Mr. Ulman's sugary drink policy has led to some grumbling from a few vendors and others, and there are some legitimate questions to be worked out like those involving rec sports teams. But on the whole, it has been greeted by Howard Countians with indifference. This was hardly the defining issue of his campaign against Democrat Courtney Watson, and there is no burning reason for him to make it the defining issue of his early days as county executive. It's bad policy and bad politics.