Drawing the curtain on a 27-year career with Howard County that included a 12-year run as director of the Department of Planning and Zoning (DPZ), Marsha McLaughlin announced her retirement , which became effective June 30. Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman announced his choice of Valdis Lazdins, previously chief of research and special projects at the Montgomery County Planning Department and a Howard County resident from 1984 to 1996, as her replacement.

“I am confident that Valdis is the right person for this job, particularly as we look ahead to some exciting new development and redevelopment projects,” said Kittleman. “He shares my vision of a more accessible department and a transparent, inclusive process to help us make land use decisions.”

“Howard County is a much different place than when I left,” Lazdins said. “It’s in a different place on the development curve — a maturing place with a greater focus on redevelopment and revitalization.”

In a fitting sendoff, McLaughlin found herself attending one last marathon county council session lasting well past midnight, a common occurrence when she helmed the DPZ. This time, she was before the council to seek adoption of the county’s 2016 Housing Unit Allocation Chart and the Open/Closed Chart, pursuant to the county’s Adequate Public Facilities Act that designates regions and school districts open for residential development.

“Under these charts, there are five elementary schools that are closed and four middle schools that are projected to be closed for the test year 2015,” McLaughlin said.

Vaping Ban

Legislation introduced by Councilman Jon Weinstein (D-Dist. 1) to ban electronic smoking and vapor devices from bars, restaurants and workplaces was met with testimony from groups citing documentation and scientific studies that back up both sides of the issue.

Gregory Conley, of Medford, Va., spoke on behalf of the American Vaping Association (yes, there actually is such a thing), drawing on population surveys linking vapor products to approximately 3 to 4 million Americans who no longer smoke because the devices helped break their addiction to nicotine.

“We merely say that because there is no evidence that these products pose harm to bystanders, businesses should be allowed to make up their own minds,” Conley said.

He also cited Baltimore City’s decision that allows bars and restaurants to permit vaping, if they wish, by placing signs in their windows. “That would be a much better solution to this issue,” he said. “There’s no reason to restrict the usage of vapor products and a multitude of reasons not to.”

Michaeline Fedder, of Baltimore, speaking on behalf of the American Heart Association, disagreed with the assertion that vapor products pose no harm to bystanders.

“There has been a tremendous amount of activity … at poison centers throughout the state,” she said. “Children have been … consuming and drinking the vapor liquid. This is an unintended consequence of having these products around the house.”

Fedder also noted reports of the devices exploding and questioned their overall safety, many of which are produced in China, without standardized manufacturing practices in place.

“The Bloomberg School of Public Health did come out and say there is danger to the lung and the immune system by constant use of these products,” she said.

“We are very much concerned about marketing to children,” Fedder said, observing that the variety of flavors added to the vapor products make them attractive to younger users.

“There are no controls and no taxes on e-cigarettes, so it’s cheaper for the kids to use them, and they’re getting the same high,” she said.

Garber Appointment

In what many in the county have categorized as an unexpected, if not surprising, choice, Kittleman nominated community advocate Susan Garber, president of the Savage Community Association, to replace outgoing Planning Board Member Josh Tzuker, whose five-year term ended in May.

“I was rather surprised myself when the executive asked me, because I publicly disagreed with him on some issues,” Garber said. “I greatly appreciate his trust and welcome the opportunity, as he says, ‘for everyone to have a seat at the table.’”

Garber’s was among the voices critical of the county’s decision to move forward with construction of a residential facility along Route 1 in Jessup for the chronically homeless, preferring instead the idea of more integrated housing types throughout the county. She has also been an outspoken critic of plans to develop a townhouse community called The Settlement at Savage Mill, which encroaches on environmentally sensitive parkland in her home town.

Perhaps more surprising was that the primary opposition to her appointment during a June public hearing before the council came not from developers, but from Howard County educators who took Garber to task for recent letters published by the Baltimore Sun.

“I hate that the press I received made it seem like I was against a raise for educators,” Garber said. “I was actually in favor of a raise, but my point in the letter was to question why the level of the raise was set at 4%, rather than 3%.”

Shun Lu, a Clarksville real estate agent, acknowledged that she disagrees with Garber on occasion, “but … I believe her strong qualifications and a long-time involvement in the county and community affairs and her extraordinary dedication to the common good as a volunteer are much more important.”

Compensation Package

Finally in late June, the Howard County Board of Education and the Howard County Education Association (HCEA) announced a tentative agreement on a two-year contract covering the 2015–16 and 2016–17 school years, arrived at with the help of a mediator. HCEA is the organization that represents teachers and other non-supervisory certificated employees.

The agreement followed a tense few weeks during which the HCEA called special town hall meetings to address an e-mail from Howard County Public School System Superintendent Renee Foose that the HCEA believed to constitute so-called direct dealing — what the organization termed “an illegal effort to bypass the HCEA in bargaining.”

“We are pleased that this agreement provides for a compensation package that allows us to continue to attract and maintain the very best,” said Board of Education Chair Janet Siddiqui.

The tentative agreement, subject to ratification by the association membership and approval by the board of education, provides for a one-step increment for eligible employees, effective Dec. 24. In addition, employees will work three fewer days for the 2015–16 school year. The agreement is for two years, with a provision that compensation, and up to one article identified by each party, may be reopened for negotiation for the 2016–17 school year.

“Howard County’s students and families are the winners today; their teachers are among the best in the nation,” said Paul Lemle, HCEA president. “This agreement is a commitment to good-faith negotiations in the future and provides a framework for collaboration in evaluations.”

The board of education and HCEA plan to formally ratify and sign the agreement during the regularly scheduled board meeting on Thursday, Sept. 3.

The board of education and HCEA-ESP, representing non-supervisory support professionals, will continue discussions in early July aimed at reaching agreement for this employee group.