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Government Had Key Role in Columbia’s Birth, Its Future

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As we celebrate Columbia’s 50th birthday, it’s important to remember the key role that government, at all levels, played in the development of Jim Rouse’s aging “new town.”

From the 30,000-foot view, the picture starts with Washington, D.C. Without the capital so near and continuing to grow as a metropolis, the Corridor between Columbia and Washington would not have been as likely a target for development as it was in the 1960s.

President Dwight Eisenhower’s program to build a national system of interstate highways was a factor in this story. The construction of I-95, now the Main Street of the entire East Coast, and a bit later, I-70, from Baltimore to Denver, made rural Howard County much more accessible.

After surreptitiously acquiring 14,000 acres, Rouse had to persuade three-conservative Republican county commissioners — who had run on an anti-growth platform — that developing Columbia was Howard County’s best way to guard against suburban sprawl. It was a tough sell, largely accomplished by months of meetings with Howard County citizens and civic leaders to persuade them that Columbia was a good idea.

Those conservative commissioners came to regret their decision when all the out-of-state liberals came flocking in, attracted by Rouse’s aspirations for a community that was economically, socially, racially and religiously diverse.
Ultimately, Columbia was not a vaccination against the suburban sprawl that is visible all over Howard County today. The town may have delayed the spread of helter-skelter single-family housing developments, but it did not prevent them. The economic pressures were too strong once Columbia had raised the bar for the services the county offered — good schools, shopping, libraries, a community college and a hospital.

Columbia did prevent Route 29 from becoming the same hodge-podge of strip shopping centers that now stretch five miles along Route 40 from Patapsco State Park to the edge of Turf Valley. Route 29 has become a six-lane asphalt river that divides East and West Columbia, an expressway now complemented by the Great Wall of Columbia on the east.

Big Role for SHA

The State Highway Administration (SHA) has played a crucial role in how Columbia was developed. The Columbia Archives record a lot of back-and-forth between The Rouse Co. and the highway folks; back in 1968, Jim Rouse once suggested to incoming Gov.-Elect Spiro Agnew that he hire a prominent highway engineer to head what was then called the State Roads Commission. The engineer was a consultant for Rouse. Agnew appointed him — Agnew, as Baltimore County executive, probably knew the Towson-based engineer.
At the Founder’s Day celebration honoring Rouse that was held at the community college last month, Dave Forrester, one of The Rouse Co.’s key project managers for Columbia, reminded me of the special state tax break that helped Rouse. The state agreed to tax these large parcels Rouse owned as farmland until they were actually developed. Had the company had to pay a tax rate based on what the land was worth as development, Columbia wouldn’t have been financially feasible.

At every step of the way, Columbia was the result of cooperation between a relatively benign developer and relatively open-minded government officials representing the citizenry. (After Jim Rouse ran into some problems over campaign contributions, the company established a policy that executives and the firm would not contribute to local and state political campaigns.).

Jim Rouse promised the residents of Howard County in 1964 that Columbia would not be a burden on the county, and that it would generate more in tax revenues than it would cost. That has generally proved to be the case.

That’s the prism by which the county needs to judge the future development of Downtown Columbia and Columbia Gateway Business Park. The Rouse Co. got a lot of concessions from Howard County and the state of Maryland, but it didn’t get everything it asked for. The same should be true for the Howard Hughes Corp. and the scores of other property owners seeking concessions from the county and state; what one person calls a “giveaway” to a developer, another can see as a reasonable exchange.

We must count on Columbia Association and the Howard County government to maintain, adapt and update the vision that Rouse had for Columbia.
People won’t always agree on outcomes — planners inside The Rouse Co. had fierce disagreements on some long-forgotten issues. But unlike those private disputes, the future for Howard County’s downtown in Columbia needs to be determined in a public process that is open and transparent.

Foose Out, Martirano In

For at least two decades, the average tenure for an urban superintendent of schools in the United States has been under four years, Outside of Columbia, Howard County is not officially “urban,” but it does rank about 80th among the 100 largest U.S. school districts out of 13,000 districts nationwide.
So, by most standards, with 55,000 students, Howard is a big school district with many typical urban problems.

Renee Foose lasted almost five years until last month, a little bit longer than average as big school systems go. But Howard County is not used to such turnover, nor such turmoil, in getting rid of a superintendent, as happened in May. In the past 68 years, Howard County has had only seven superintendents. Until the school board did not renew Superintendent John O’Rourke’s contract in 2004 after only four years in the job, the two previous superintendents served for 16 years, and the one before them for 19 years.

The split this time was messy and predictable once three new school board members won last year’s election. They ousted three incumbents who had given Foose a second four-year contract. Foose then sued the board for usurping her power, a move that sealed her departure.

But getting rid of someone who has a contract is expensive. In this case, it cost county taxpayers $1.6 million, with some generous retirement benefits thrown in.

At $273,000 a year, Foose was already the highest paid county government employee. In 2016, according to a Baltimore Sun analysis of state data, the highest paid state employee was Randy Edsall, the University of Maryland’s football coach who was fired in 2015.

The one saving grace in the cases of O’Rourke and Foose is that the Howard County school board immediately found interim superintendents who were already familiar with the school system. In 2004, they hired Sydney Cousin, who had retired from the system and would ultimately serve eight years. In May, they hired Michael Martirano as acting superintendent to replace Foose, then quickly named him interim chief for a year.

Martirano had served as supervisor of elementary schools here, then served as superintendent in St. Mary’s County and state superintendent in West Virginia. He resigned that post after his wife took her life and he returned to Howard County to be near his grown children.

Right off the bat, Martirano announced he had been interested in being superintendent in Howard County for the long term. So far he’s gotten good reviews, and provided a sharp contrast to the less outgoing Foose.

Besides Foose, another casualty of the dissension on the board was former board chair Christine O’Connor, who resigned a day after Foose “retired.” Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman, who had served as the mediator between the board and Foose, appointed Ananta Hejeebu to fill the newly-opened seat on the county’s seven-member Board of Education.

Hejeebu already serves on the Howard County Public School System Budget Review Committee, established by the Howard County Council.
The council must approve Hejeebu’s appointment.

Sparing With Vetoes

Gov. Larry Hogan again this year was very sparing with his veto letters, rejecting only four proposed bills outright. He used separate press conferences to announce three of the vetoes: paid sick leave, a bill defining standards for failing schools and legislative redistricting.

Those weren’t the only bills from the legislature Hogan was unhappy with. He allowed 74 bills (some of them duplicates by House and Senate) to go into law without his signature. These included bills on drug price gouging and local beer breweries. Some included provisions he didn’t like or think would be effective.
The Republican governor chooses his fights with the majority Democrats carefully — not because he can win them (he usually doesn’t), but because they make political points.

In addition, he signed at least 758 other bills, including much of his own legislative package. Unlike other years, Hogan did not veto the many duplicate bills that are cross-filed between House and Senate to better guarantee passage.
Democrats, unions and progressive groups were most perturbed with his veto of the paid sick leave bill they tried to pass for five years. The governor preferred his own bill, which covered fewer people, and used the carrot of tax credits instead of the penalty sticks in the legislature’s bill.

Given his druthers, Hogan would probably prefer no more regulations on business. But mandating paid sick leave is popular, even among Republican voters, a Goucher College poll found. So Hogan came up with his own plan. He and the Dems will argue about it in the interim. The vote could be close on veto override, but Democratic leaders see this as a good campaign cudgel against Hogan, so the pressure will be on Democratic lawmakers to stick with the party line.

Hogan did an elaborate veto of a rather outlandish bill Democrats labeled as redistricting reform. It sets up an independent commission to redraw congressional district lines in Maryland — but only if five other states, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina, do the same. Partisan gerrymandering is as bad or worse in North Carolina; the U.S. Supreme Court just told North Carolina to redraw its lines because of the way they pack black Democrats into weirdly-shaped districts.

Hogan also chose to pick a fight with the teachers union concerning a bill establishing accountability standards for public schools required by the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act. Hogan said the bill set academic standards too low and would trap students in failing schools. He vetoed the bill April 5; the House and Senate easily overrode his veto the next day.

Yungmann, McFarlane for Council

A year away from the June 26, 2018, primary, candidates are beginning to file for the three seats on the Howard County Council that will become available due to term limits.

Republican Realtor David Yungmann announced last month for the District 5 seat now held by the council’s lone Republican, Greg Fox. Yungmann serves on the boards of the Howard County Chamber of Commerce, Howard County Association of Realtors, Howard County Junior Achievement, Friends of the Howard County Library System and various other boards and committees.
Howard County Register of Wills Byron Macfarlane, a Democrat, is angling for a pay cut, but more power and visibility when he kicks off his campaign June 10 for the Council’s District 4, the seat held for three terms by Mary Kay Sigaty.
“I love my job, but it’s time for me to move on,” said Macfarlane (via email), who has progressive credentials about a mile long that will serve him well in this West Columbia district, the heart of liberal Columbia.