Can county officials across Maryland work together for a more prosperous future? I now believe this more than ever.
I had the opportunity last week to attend the summer conference for the Maryland Association of Counties (MACo). This annual event draws nearly 2,500 local, state, and federal government officials together to share best practices, as well as to discuss current issues facing local governments across our state. Some may believe that a gathering like this would merely be an excuse for summer fun. On the contrary, I was quite impressed by the thoughtful topics that were considered, as well as the ideas shared by local officials from all over Maryland.
About 20 educational sessions were offered at the conference, featuring more than 80 speakers from various public and private sector entities. Just some of the topics covered included: 1) how counties can foster an entrepreneurial culture through local economic development initiatives, 2) how our state, county, and municipal leaders can promote more robust cooperation amongst themselves, and 3) how local governments can leverage volunteer resources to further the work of specific county agencies. Two sessions in particular were of special interest to me.
The first of these was entitled "The Parks Dilemma: Preservation vs. Recreation." Baltimore County Del. Dana Stein (D-Dist. 11) moderated this session, which explored how local parks and recreation agencies can balance their limited funding to simultaneously preserve open space and delicate ecosystems, while also developing recreational facilities that are in demand by citizens like us. While these important goals are often complementary, there are times when occasional conflicts do occur. Speakers from communities as different from each other as Prince George's County and Wicomico County had some great examples as to how they balanced these considerations in the development of specific park projects.
Another session of interest shined a light on "Coping with the Fast-Changing World of Local Planning." During the past decade, there has been a changing dynamic for local governments as they seek to craft a sensible framework to guide local land use issues. The concept of smart growth has made its way into the mainstream, and local governments are now trying to rethink older communities and commercial centers, as opposed to just building something new down the road.
One speaker in particular encouraged local planning agencies to focus more on developing the "functional elements" of local plan implementation. Specifically, it was suggested that customized plans to address future housing, transportation, and other infrastructure needs were essential now, rather than getting bogged down in local land use/zoning revisions.
On the last day of every MACo conference, the sitting Governor of Maryland typically offers closing remarks. This year, Lt. Governor Anthony Brown shared his thoughts, in place of Governor O'Malley. I believe that his words succinctly sum up what local leaders across Maryland have been working to do during these challenging times. Lt. Governor Brown said, "We do our best when we’re working together with our eyes focused on the future—a future with more jobs and a stronger economy. We’re at our best when we take care of one another and use the tools of government to protect our neighbors and expand opportunity."