Baltimore County Council begins Smith staff confirmation hearings

New charter law gives panel power to screen top executive appointments

January 29, 2003|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore County Council held its first public confirmation hearings for county department heads yesterday, but in contrast to the sometimes heated rhetoric that has accompanied Executive James T. Smith Jr.'s personnel moves so far, the discussions were cordial and focused on policy issues.

The council interviewed Smith's appointees to head five departments - Arnold J. Eppel, acting director of the Department of Aging; David A.C. Carroll, director of the Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management; Fire Chief John J. Hohman; Health Officer Michelle Leverett and acting Recreation and Parks Director Robert J. Barrett.

`The easy ones'

Council Chairman Kevin Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Ruxton Democrat, said afterward that he expects the council to confirm all five nominees.

"These were the easy ones," said Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder, a Fullerton Democrat. "That's why they came to us first."

The confirmations are the result of a charter amendment change backed by the council and approved by voters in November. Previously, the council had the power to confirm only a few officials, such as the fire and police chiefs.

Those hearings were conducted in closed session, but councilmen said they saw approval of the amendment as a call for greater public accountability.

Four residents, all representatives of the Banneker Community Development Association, attended the meeting to speak about the nominations. They requested that the nominees be asked what they would do to ensure greater diversity in hiring and promotions, and sensitivity to the county's minority community.

All five nominees addressed the questions.

"Those questions didn't fall on deaf ears," Bartenfelder said.

Executive is pleased

Smith opposed the confirmation amendment while running for executive, but said yesterday he was pleased with the tenor of the hearings.

"Today, we saw a constructive dialogue between the County Council and my nominees, with a real focus on policies and issues," he said. "I'm optimistic that this kind of exchange will help us operate more efficiently, make us more aware of current concerns and enhance the accountability the public demands."

Kamenetz said the real value of the hearings was to give councilmen the opportunity for wide-ranging discussion with department heads on policy issues. In the past, the council's only formal opportunity for such discussion came in budget hearings, he said.

The only one of the five nominees who has been involved in a dispute recently was Leverett, who fired longtime county drug czar Michael M. Gimbel in December.

Councilmen addressed that issue in an indirect way, asking Leverett what it meant in terms of the direction of the department.

Councilmen hinted that future confirmation hearings might not be so easy.

Kamenetz asked Carroll, who used to head the Maryland Department of the Environment, several pointed questions about the transition from state to local government, an apparent reference to Beverly Swaim-Staley, a former Maryland Department of Transportation official tapped by Smith to be county administrative officer.

Councilmen have raised eyebrows about Staley's lack of experience in the county and the $140,000 salary Smith promised her. Ultimately, the council has the power to confirm her and set her pay.

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