Dual role of Smith's son under scrutiny

Met with planning chief for client while advising father on staff changes

January 15, 2003|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Michael P. Smith, the son of new Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr., represented a property owner in a meeting with the county planning director while serving as a key adviser to his father on hiring and firing within the administration.

Both Smiths said they see no impropriety in the meeting, and Planning Director Arnold F. "Pat" Keller III said he did not feel pressured to make decisions in favor of the development.

But some county politicians, government watchdogs and ethics experts said Michael Smith's dual role is worrisome and could contribute to public mistrust of government.

"He's recognized as the top adviser for his father, and right now [James Smith] is reviewing all the current department heads and directors as to whether they're going to keep their jobs," said County Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder, a Fullerton Democrat. "It's just hard to believe."

The meeting does not appear to violate county or state ethics laws, which regulate the conduct of government officials and employees - not unpaid, unofficial advisers like Michael Smith, who is a lawyer in the Reisterstown firm of Bodie, Nagle, Dolina, Smith and Hobbs.

"I'm not aware that there's anything improper about Michael representing clients in matters before departments," said James Smith, a Democrat and former Circuit Court judge. "I'm not aware he's done it since I was sworn in, but I'm not aware that there would be anything wrong even after the swearing-in."

Michael Smith said the meeting with Keller took place Nov. 21, before his father's Dec. 2 inauguration. He said he has had no other meetings with county officials on behalf of private clients since before his father was elected Nov. 5.

Both Smiths said now that top aides have been hired for the new administration - a chief of staff, a senior adviser and an administrative officer nominee begin work this week and next - Michael Smith will return to his law practice full time.

"I assume he will continue in campaign activities for me, but he isn't going to be helping me out in my office as county executive," James Smith said.

`Play by the rules'

James Browning, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, said it is better for Smith to rely on formal advisers because county laws bind them to a code of conduct. If Michael Smith continued as an informal adviser, it would give the appearance of impropriety, he said.

"It sounds like his son has access to the levers of power with none of the burdens or responsibilities that come with it," Browning said. "If you want to be in the room, you've got to play by the rules."

Michael Smith, 36, was not a formal member of his father's transition team, but several current and former county employees have said he has interviewed county employees as the executive decides who will stay and who will go.

County government insiders said the most influential advisers in the Smith administration have been the executive's sister, M. Teresa Cook; Michael Smith; and Stuart Kaplow, a Towson lawyer who also handles land-use issues.

Last week, James Smith began interviewing county department heads, such as the planning director, to decide whether he will retain them.

"I'm not aware that the status of Pat Keller has been determined," said Council Chairman Kevin Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Ruxton Democrat. "If the son still has a role in determining Pat Keller's future, it's clearly inappropriate."

Michael Smith's car frequently has been parked outside the courthouse in Towson in the past month with a county executive office staff placard in the window. But James Smith said he hasn't talked to his son about transition matters within the past week.

Meeting with Keller

In the meeting with Keller, Michael Smith was representing the owners of an undeveloped tract near Grey Rock Mansion. Planning on the housing development is in the early stages.

In the county's comprehensive rezoning process in 2000, Kamenetz changed the property's designation from commercial to density residential against the owners' wishes. Michael Smith represented the owners as they fought that zoning change.

County records show that Michael Smith spoke and corresponded with Kamenetz in an attempt to block the zoning change, but the county has no record that he registered as a lobbyist with the council secretary, as required by law.

Michael Smith said he couldn't remember whether he formally registered but said there are public records showing that he represented the owners.

"It's not like I was trying to hide my representation of them," he said.

Now the property owners are trying to sell the land to a developer who plans to build about a dozen villa-style, single-family detached homes on the site.

Keller said Michael Smith's role in the meeting was limited because he represented the seller, not the developer. In any case, Keller said, Michael Smith's presence didn't affect him.

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