Differences appear to be on the mend in Balto. Co.

Smith, council working on changes to panel's bill

March 31, 2003|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

After an angry outburst by County Executive James T. Smith Jr. over a County Council bill to change the budgeting procedure brought his already-fragile relations with council members to a new low, both sides have quietly worked behind the scenes and found that their positions weren't so opposed after all.

Yet such public argument was unheard of when C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger was executive. And council members say Smith's "overreaction" shows how much work he must do to establish the smooth relationship that his predecessor enjoyed with them.

The bill, sponsored by all seven council members, was introduced March 3 to the surprise of the executive and his staff. After learning about it, Smith called the bill a naked power grab that would rob the administration of its ability to manage effectively.

He also implied that the County Council chairman, Kevin Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Ruxton Democrat, had misled his colleagues about the bill's nature to get their support as part of a political ploy.

"It was a rather strong reaction, and it's something that before commenting on the matter in the press, it could and should have been talked about in the spirit of reconciling and compromising," said Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, a north county Republican. "I mean, he knows, we all know, that many bills come up and in their embryo, they're one thing, and by the time they're actually passed, various changes, hopefully improvements, have been made."

As originally proposed, the bill at issue would have done two things. First, it would have given the council line-by-line accounting of every personnel position in the executive's proposed budget, and, second, it would have required the executive to get council approval for personnel changes midyear.

When the dust settled, both sides said, it became clear that the executive was objecting to effects of the bill that the council members neither anticipated nor desired.

"They called the day after it was introduced and said this isn't what they meant," Smith said. "It's going to be amended in a way I think is acceptable to everybody."

The new version, which is scheduled for discussion at the council's work session tomorrow, keeps the line-by-line accounting of each position but scraps the part about the council getting approval power over midyear changes. Instead, the council's auditor will be given quarterly reports of such personnel shifts.

Kamenetz said he disagrees with the executive's assessment that the original version would have brought the wheels of government to a grinding halt. He noted that the council already has approval power over midyear changes in contracts and grants. But, he said, vast approval power was not what the council members were trying to get in the first place.

"We are more interested in the information aspect of it, and it's not worth getting in a battle over nothing," he said.

Kamenetz gave much the same explanation for the bill's purpose the night it was introduced, before Smith made his comments about it.

At the time, though, Smith and Kamenetz were butting heads over the executive's pick for county administrative officer, the government's No. 2 post, and over the salary he had promised her.

Smith didn't know about the budget bill until Kamenetz gave his staff a copy, about two hours before it was introduced. The executive, in Annapolis that day lobbying the legislature, was caught completely by surprise, he said. At the time, he said he was convinced Kamenetz was behind it.

But the bill was not the work of Kamenetz alone - it was sponsored by all seven council members, some of whom have consistently supported the executive since he was sworn in.

"He overreacted," said Councilman Kenneth N. Oliver, a Randallstown Democrat. "He overreacted and, quite frankly, I really think he's sorry for it, not that he may come out and say it."

Councilman Stephen G. Samuel Moxley, a Catonsville Democrat, said he found Smith's comments upsetting and hopes that the executive will have better communication with the council in the future.

"I can understand his possible shock that a bill was put in and he didn't know about it - I don't think that speaks well - but hopefully he has a better idea of what we're doing now," Moxley said. "But a simple phone call to say, `Hey, wait a minute, what's this all about?' is a better way to do this."

When Ruppersberger was executive, he made Robert J. Barrett, his campaign manager and a well-known figure in county political circles, his top aide and gave him the task of serving as a liaison to the County Council. In his two terms, the executive almost never had difficulty getting his initiatives through the council.

When Smith was elected, he made Barrett director of recreation and parks and hired George A. Shoenberger, a long-time manager at the University of Maryland, Baltimore who had no experience with Baltimore County politics or local government in general.

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