Thursday, November 20, 2014

Terms in Transition: The Ulman Legacy

With the unveiling of Ken Ulman's portrait in the George Howard Building, it seems as good a time as any to review Ulman's legacy as County Executive.  As you can tell from the title of this post, I think the best description would be "Terms in Transition".  Ken came into the Executive position just as Howard County was on the precipice of change; decisions were still being made as to whether our leadership should allow Columbia to grow or to hold steady with the satisfaction that things were "just fine" in Howard County the ways things were.

Ken embraced this growth and, in doing so, fundamentally transformed the County he was elected to lead.  Howard County, but Columbia in particular, is a very different place now than it was 8 years ago.  It "feels" different.  Without any stats to prove it, I feel as if Columbia's profile has been raised and expectations expanded for what was once considered a visionary plan that fell short.  Ken's fingerprints are all over that work, whether it was in crafting and stewarding legislation or negotiating compliance, he has been in the pilot's chair throughout.

But just as Howard County is more than Columbia, so is it true that Ken's term expanded outside of his hometown.  Ken transformed the position of County Executive from administrator to CEO.  For good or for bad, it would be difficult to find a more policy-rich term as Executive than Ken Ulman's.  From health to the environment to cyber-command to broadband to food policy, there really aren't any boxes Ken left unchecked.  If you wanted to dislike Ken Ulman, he wasn't afraid to give you reasons for doing so.  Ken led with his chin in every endeavor and sometimes failed on a very big stage (Ken's Fall of 2011 comes to mind), but he confidently picked himself back up and moved on to the next thing, barely giving critics enough time to finish their critique before cutting another ribbon, announcing another program, or receiving another award for his hometown.  Contrast this against Executives in Baltimore, Anne Arundel, or Prince George's County, and you'll see just how impactful Ken has been.

There is a tragedy inherent in overseeing transition, particularly when the final product is so close at hand.  Columbia will never be "finished", but it will have reached its next stage in development sometime over the next four years.  Density will have set in, new businesses will have been attracted by the same, and Inner Arbor (God willing) will be nearing half-completion.  These things were directly affected and assisted by Ken's work, yet he will likely be watching their progress right next to you and I.  This was ok when Ken was viewed as a leader in transition, moving on to bigger and better things, but it all feels a little unfair today.

Howard County is a better place because of Ken Ulman.  I think County Executives will be held against the standard he set for decades to come.  He has established lasting precedent for what can be done from that position and identified the political landmines for anyone who may follow his path.  I doubt we've heard the last of Ken, but his opening act has been quite spectacular.

That's all for today.  Have a great Thursday doing what you love!