“What is this meeting about again?”
Though it was a simple question, I had difficulty answering it.
“It’s some kind of forum with, the county exec,” I said. That was really the best answer I could come up with, and it was probably enough to satisfy her, anyway. Denise, my significant other, does not exactly share my interest in local politics.
To be honest, I only had a vague notion of what to expect. All I knew was that County Executive Ken Ulman was holding some sort of community forum. I had no idea what that actually entailed. What I did know was that it was being held at the Robinson Nature Center in Columbia and was supposed to start at 7:30 p.m. I also knew that we would be having an early dinner, allowing me plenty of time to get there.
I was still late. As I entered the meeting room, a middle-aged gentlemen was already at the microphone, well into a diatribe about the need to cut defense spending and increase spending on education, or something along those lines. To his credit, the exec acknowledged the gentleman’s concerns, yet then proceeded with an explanation of the critical need for cybersecurity and how that piece of defense budget pie has a significant economic impact in this region.
I thought that the national defense budget might be a little out of range for a county executive to address, but that didn’t seem to concern this particular petitioner.
I belatedly realized that this was basically “open mic” night with the county executive. Any resident could sign up to speak with Ken about anything, even the cost of an aircraft carrier. There did not appear to be a time limit; and even if there was one, I never heard a buzzer or saw anyone grab a hook. If someone started to get a bit longwinded, Ken deftly brought them back to either a question or conclusion.
More often than not, the petitioners appeared a little nervous when their turn came to speak. The people’s microphone was set up on a stand in the center aisle of a room that held about 150 people. Roughly three-quarters of the seats were filled and a line of people stood along the back wall. The exec stood at a table in the front of the room with the much cooler wireless microphone, allowing him to move around a bit as he listened and responded. Some people read from prepared remarks, others winged it.
I couldn’t help but think that proponents of Choose Civility in Howard County would have been proud of their fellow citizens that evening. Almost everyone who got up to speak began by complimenting Ken for something. Even a guy who once staged a picket line outside one of Ken’s fundraising events started out by saying nice things before launching into an airing of grievances.
So what are the current grievances of the second-best place to live in the country? There was the predictable concern about development and one speaker took issue about the new speed cams. Elkridge wants a high school and a guy from Turf Valley wanted speed bumps.
In the overall scheme of things, it was pretty mundane stuff.
Notably, they also didn’t run out of time. I don’t know when they had planned to wrap up this community forum, but nobody seemed in any great rush to do so. Ken even extended an invitation to anyone in the audience to come up, even if they hadn’t previously signed up.
He got one taker: the Turf Valley speed bump guy.
The meeting was remarkable for being unremarkable. Howard County has a population of almost 300,000, more than 40% of whom are minorities. It would not be unreasonable to expect a once-a-year open forum with an elected official who oversees big local stuff like schools, fire and police to get a little heated at times.
That didn’t happen.
I heard an anecdote recently about the first time the county exec was introduced to English business magnate Richard Branson during the Virgin FreeFest at Merriweather Post Pavilion. When Branson was told he was going to be introduced to the county executive, he didn’t quite know what to make of the title.
“He’s like the mayor,” Branson was told, giving him a point of reference.
For some reason I’ve always associated the term mayor with drama.
Considering the absence of drama at this particular community forum, executive is probably the more appropriate description of the job.
Dennis Lane co-hosts “and then there’s that…,” a bi-weekly local news podcast on hocomojo.com, and blogs about stuff around here at www.wordbones.com.