Executive bumps

January 21, 2003

NEW BALTIMORE County Executive James T. Smith Jr. is off to a rocky start.

He hired outsiders to fill three top administrative jobs without consulting the seven-member council. He got rid of the popular economic development director, again without prior consultation with the council. Needless to say, noses are out of joint.

These may be just initial bumps in the road as Mr. Smith, a longtime judge, adjusts to his new role as a politician. Trouble is, he was a councilman once. For that reason, he should be more sensitive about the legislative branch's role as a partner and sounding board.

The worst thing that could happen would be a return to the "fearsome foursome" period, when four antagonistic council members allied against County Executive Theodore G. Venetoulis, undoing his policy initiatives. It wasn't pretty. Baltimore County doesn't need such hostility.

Mr. Smith dismisses the council's uneasiness as "anxiety about change."

Unfortunately, his tenuous relationship with the council is not the only thing that is troubling.

In deciding who will be retained and who will be let go, Mr. Smith in his first six weeks has listened primarily to three people: his sister, M. Teresa Cook; his son, Michael P. Smith; and Towson real estate lawyer Stuart Kaplow. Of the three, Michael Smith and Mr. Kaplow are no uninterested referees but lawyers who are deeply involved in zoning controversies before county authorities.

Thus, it was unseemly that Michael Smith, just days before his father's inauguration, represented a private landowner in a meeting with Planning Director Arnold F. "Pat" Keller III, on whose reappointment he may be advising the county executive. No laws or ethics rules were broken, but Mr. Smith surely was skating on the fringes of a conflict-of-interest situation.

Most surprising was the reaction of the county executive. He saw nothing worrisome or questionable in his son's actions.

These blind spots are astonishing. As a former judge and councilman, the executive should be more mindful of appearances of propriety. Unless he sets the right tone and clear ethics guidelines at the outset, his administration is likely to be dogged by all kinds of controversies he and the county's citizens would rather avoid.

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