Smith calls bill a power play by Balto. Co. council

Fiscal oversight effort is an old idea, members say

March 05, 2003|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County councilmen insist a bill they introduced to change county budget procedure is the culmination of years of thought on how best to exercise their role as fiscal watchdogs. But County Executive James T. Smith Jr. is treating the bill as a personal affront, accusing the council of trying to grab power from him no matter what the consequences.

The dispute is the clearest sign yet that Smith doesn't have the cooperative relationship with the council that was a hallmark of his predecessor. Not only did all seven council members co-sponsor a bill Smith strenuously opposes, but he and his staff didn't find out about it until two hours before it was introduced at Monday's council meeting, members of his staff said.

The bill would require the executive to list individually all positions and salaries in the county government when he submits his budget. If he wants to create a new position at midyear, he would be required to seek the council's approval.

Councilmen said the bill would give them the information they need to prevent growth in the size of government and safeguard the county's bottom line, but Smith said it would rob him of the flexibility he needs to run the county.

"It's an unabashed reach for power by the legislative branch," Smith said. "It doesn't stem from any problem with county government. It stems from their disagreement with some actions I've taken as county executive."

Early yesterday, Smith huddled with his top aides in the executive's office and with political advisers - including his son and campaign manager, Michael P. Smith; his sister, Theresa M. Cook; and Towson attorney Stuart Kaplow - at his campaign headquarters to discuss a response to the bill.

They met at the campaign headquarters and not at the county executive's office because the three political advisers are not county employees and they wanted to "avoid the appearance of impropriety," county spokeswoman Elise Armacost said.

Smith made no comments about the bill yesterday, but his first reaction wasn't to extend the olive branch. Monday night he said he assumed the bill was the work of Council Chairman Kevin Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Ruxton Democrat. He also said that Kamenetz's colleagues must not have understood the bill - that, otherwise, they would not have supported it.

"That's the part that really befuddles me," Smith said Monday about the co-sponsorship by all seven councilmen. "I don't know what the chairman has told them with regard to this bill. Who knows what they were told its implication was?"

"I understand what the bill does," said Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, a Perry Hall-Towson Democrat. "This has nothing to do with any council members' disagreements with Jim Smith. This is something that was discussed when Dutch Ruppersberger was executive, so I don't think it should be taken personally by the county executive, and I don't think he should be finger-pointing at any of the County Council members."

Councilmen said their interest in the bill was piqued two years ago when then-Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger moved jail administrator Dorothy Williams into the position of criminal justice coordinator, a post that had been vacant for a decade. The council cut the position from the budget, but Ruppersberger later shuffled money within the Police Department to give her the job.

Touchy relationship

Although councilmen insisted they have been thinking about the idea for at least four years, many of them have had a touchy relationship with Smith from the day he took office.

They clashed over the appointment and dismissal of county managers and interpretation of a charter amendment giving the council the power to confirm executive nominees. They disagreed about conflict-of-interest questions about Smith's son and about the salary he promised his nominee for the No. 2 post in the county, Beverley Swaim-Staley.

Kamenetz said that serious discussions about this bill began last spring and that Smith hasn't done anything to dissuade them from pursuing it.

Kamenetz noted that under the Ruppersberger administration, one person did the jobs of chief of staff and education liaison and was paid $70,000. Smith has split those duties into two positions, one being paid $65,000 a year and the other $100,000. He has also reinstated the criminal justice coordinator position, a $92,500 job.

Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder, a Fullerton Democrat who served previously in the House of Delegates, said the council is seeking the same power the General Assembly has to track individual positions in the state budget.

Assembly vs. council

William S. Ratchford II, the former head of fiscal services for the state and now a consultant working for Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, said what the council is seeking is not what the General Assembly has.

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