Winds of change generate a chill

Anxiety: Top-level hirings in James T. Smith Jr.'s Baltimore County administration and a resignation are at issue.

January 07, 2003|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

High-level hirings and a resignation in Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr.'s administration have produced anxiety among his friends and foes in county political circles about his personnel decisions.

Last week's announcement that Economic Development Director Robert L. Hannon voluntarily resigned to explore a new career path has met with almost universal skepticism.

Hannon, who helped bring about 40,000 new jobs to the county over his eight years and was a key figure in east-side revitalization efforts, had never publicly mentioned a desire to leave, and the widespread belief is that Smith asked or ordered him to resign.

Smith also announced last week that he had filled three top positions in his administration - chief of staff, senior adviser and administrative officer. Two of the three now have jobs in the state Department of Transportation and the third is an official at the University of Maryland.

None lives in the county, and none has had any dealings before with the county government, yet all three have been offered salaries equal to or in excess of what their predecessors in C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger's administration earned after years of service.

County Council members, most of them Democrats like Smith, said they are worried at his lack of communication with them over his personnel decisions and wonder about who is advising him on them. And several people prominent in local politics, some of them longtime Smith backers, said they are particularly concerned about the influence of one of his advisers, a Towson attorney who represents developers in litigation opposed to county land use policies.

The grumbling has yet to turn into widespread public criticism, but many of those interviewed said that will change if other highly respected county employees depart. "He's being watched, as far as who he's bringing in and letting go," said Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, a Perry Hall-Towson Democrat.

Smith said yesterday that he understands a certain amount of anxiety is inevitable around the change of an administration. But usually, the criticism is that a newly elected official is making personnel decisions for political reasons, Smith said, whereas he sees himself as being criticized for making apolitical decisions.

"What am I doing wrong?" Smith said. "What am I doing that is underhanded or is political or is boosting Jim Smith over the welfare of Baltimore County? I don't think I've been doing that at all."

On his first day in office, Smith announced the resignation of Parks and Recreation Director John F. Weber III. Weber, whom Smith's predecessor had recruited from Los Angeles County, indicated that the resignation was not voluntary. And last month, county drug czar Michael M. Gimbel was fired, though Smith said the decision came from Health Officer Dr. Michelle A. Leverett.

Gimbel's dismissal led to some public outcry, but county political insiders said little about Smith's personnel announcements until word came that Hannon had resigned.

Hannon said last week that his resignation was completely voluntary, and Smith said yesterday that he did not ask or order him to resign. But those denials did little to mollify county government insiders upset at his departure.

"If it was involuntary, he shouldn't have been removed. If it was voluntary, there should have been a stronger effort to keep him," said Gardina, who is beginning his fourth term on County Council. "He did an excellent job. I've been through four of those guys, and he was by far the cream of the crop."

In fact, council members and others said, Hannon's record was so strong that they wonder if he departed, who is next?

"One would question how other department heads can do their jobs properly after seeing the results that Bob Hannon had produced in the past eight years and then resigning, if you will," said Councilman Stephen G. Samuel Moxley, a Catonsville Democrat. "What do you have to do?"

Smith said Hannon told his transition team as early as November that he was looking for a new opportunity, so the executive was prepared for the resignation.

Yesterday, Smith announced his nominee to be the new economic development director, David S. Iannucci, secretary of the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development.

"I have known that I probably was going to be looking for an economic development director for a while," Smith said. Iannucci "is a very talented guy with great credentials who has been involved with Baltimore County projects."

As for the executive office appointments - a chief of staff, senior adviser and county administrative officer - Smith said he was looking for people with management expertise rather than political resumes. And the best people happened to not be county residents, he said.

"I want administrators, people who can get the job done for the citizens of Baltimore County," he said.

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