Smith's advisers under scrutiny

Council, county executive clash over his inner circle

`He's gotten out of touch'

Smith says informal group deals in politics, not policy

March 16, 2003|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

In the two months since pledging not to consult his son about county business, Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. has held periodic meetings with him and other informal advisers to discuss administration strategy for dealing with the General Assembly, the County Council and his re-election bid in 2006.

The county executive said in January that his son, a lawyer, would continue to serve as his campaign manager but "isn't going to be helping me out in my office as county executive."

That promise occurred after questions were raised about Michael Paul Smith's representation of a property owner in a meeting with the county's planning director while he was advising his father on hiring and firing personnel. Michael Smith later dropped all business with the county from his law practice, his father said.

But since his pledge, the county executive has met occasionally with his son, his sister, M. Teresa Cook, a University of Maryland administrator, and Towson lawyer Stuart D. Kaplow.

County Council members and other prominent political figures have questioned the executive's reliance on this group - particularly Kaplow - for advice. They also have said Smith needs to be cautious about the presence of his top paid deputies at these meetings when re-election campaign activities are discussed.

Their most recent meeting - on March 4, according to the county executive and Kaplow - was called to discuss how to respond to an unexpected budget initiative from the County Council, how to sell the executive's ideas about community revitalization, how to highlight the administration's accomplishments and to plan a fund-raiser for Smith.

The elder Smith said his son is advising him on those issues in his role as campaign manager for his 2006 re-election bid.

"It hasn't got to do with the departments, it hasn't got to do with projects, it hasn't got to do with personnel, it hasn't got to do with any of the things that deal with county government, in my judgment," said James Smith, a Democrat. "It has to do with me as a political entity who hopes that I can create a good response to my service as county executive and get the message across that I am dedicated and competent and effective on behalf of the citizens and that I should get re-elected."

But some County Council members said the meetings are about county business, not re-election. For example, they said, how involved the executive should be in the Maryland Association of Counties, which Kaplow said was discussed at one of the meetings, has nothing to do with a political campaign.

"How you deal with the General Assembly and whether you're involved and to what extent with MACO are strictly government issues," said Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, a north county Republican.

"I think all of those functions are county government-related functions," said Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, a Perry Hall-Towson Democrat.

Kaplow said the meetings deal with politics, not policy.

"The people who were actively involved in advising him in the campaign continue to give him advice and counsel on political matters," Kaplow said.

Neither Michael Smith nor Cook returned phone calls last week.

A rocky start

Smith's administration, now in its fourth month, has been troubled from the start. Since his first week on the job, he has sparred with the County Council over the meaning of a charter amendment, an attempt by the council to gain additional power in the budget process and the qualifications of his advisers, including Beverley Swaim-Staley, who asked to be removed from consideration for the county's No. 2 post last week to prevent what was expected to be a bruising confirmation battle.

In all the meetings, held outside the county executive's office, there were various combinations of James Smith's top paid advisers: chief of staff Gregory Pecoraro and senior aides George A. Shoenberger and Swaim-Staley.

County employees are prohibited by law from performing campaign work on county time. But the county executive said the presence of his top aides was appropriate because the meetings took place outside his office and outside the normal work day, at either 8 a.m. or 6 p.m.

At the most recent meeting March 4, Pecoraro and Shoenberger participated in a discussion at Smith's campaign headquarters at 360 Main St. in Reisterstown about a future Smith fund-raiser. The county executive said the meeting took place at 8 a.m. Pecoraro and Shoenberger confirmed the meeting's starting time through county spokeswoman Elise Armacost.

County law also prohibits employees from being required to contribute to or participate in campaigns.

"I don't know whether they would volunteer to work on my campaign if they were not part of county government or not," James Smith said. "I don't know the answer to that."

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