Smith is named people's counsel

Former prosecutor vows vigilance for consumers

October 07, 2003|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

A former prosecutor who has represented environmental interests, Baltimore City police and the poor was appointed yesterday by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to be the next people's counsel.

Patricia Anne Smith, 51, is to take over tomorrow as the head of the Office of People's Counsel, which represents residential consumers of electric, natural gas and telephone services. Smith, now an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins University, replaces Michael J. Travieso, a Democratic appointee who held the post for nearly a decade before being ousted by the Ehrlich administration in August.

The Smith appointment comes as Maryland is restructuring its electric industry. Just last week, the Maryland Public Service Commission signed off on a settlement that is expected to clear the way for competition in the state's electric market and protect consumers from price spikes and erratic supply when rate caps begin to be lifted next year. The settlement was negotiated to foster the competition that was expected but never developed after electric deregulation took effect in 2000.

Carefully monitoring the deregulation process will be among her priorities, Smith said yesterday.

"I'm very proud that Governor Ehrlich has chosen me to stand up for the rights and interest of residential consumers," Smith said. "The deregulation issue is something that we have to be vigilant [about], and constantly examine the process to see whether improvements need to be made. The [Office of People's Counsel] needs to work closely with the PSC to be clear there are adequate terms to protect consumers interests."

She said she also plans to review the responses of the state's utilities to Tropical Storm Isabel.

"As people's counsel, I will work with the PSC and the utilities to see if any improvements can be made," she said.

As a former assistant attorney general in the Maryland Department of the Environment, Smith was charged with upholding the state's environmental laws. As chief attorney for the Baltimore Legal Aid Bureau Inc., she directed an office of 50 people that handled cases of domestic law, the denial of benefits and housing for low-income clients.

In making the announcement, Ehrlich pointed to Smith's strength in the legal public service arena. "Given the recent events surrounding the recovery from Hurricane Isabel, it is now more important than ever that utility customers know there is someone to inform, protect and advocate for their rights," the governor said in a statement.

State Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which oversees matters concerning electric restructuring, said he is looking forward to meeting and working with Smith.

"There are a lot of issues facing us now," he said, including how consumers' rates will be affected once electricity rate caps begin to expire, especially if wholesale prices of natural gas and petroleum products continue rising. "The people's counsel can do a lot to assist with public awareness in that area," he said.

Smith will leave a position as assistant professor at the Hopkins School of Professional Studies in Business and Education, where she developed a Web-based curriculum for school safety. She plans to stay on as an adjunct professor at the University of Baltimore, where she teaches legal writing and is the coach for the law school's environmental moot court team.

From 2000 through February of this year, she was a special solicitor for the Baltimore City solicitor's office and served as a deputy counsel for the Baltimore Police Department. In addition to providing legal advice to the department, she ran training courses in constitutional rights and report writing for officers.

"I'm sure she will handle this job as she's handled all the other tasks in her career, with vigor and a lot of energy, and that she will do well," said Baltimore City Solicitor Thurman W. Zollicoffer Jr.

Before working for the city solicitor, Smith was the chief attorney for Legal Aid in Baltimore. "She has a singular concern for the poor, especially for getting significant benefits for children who really had been left behind totally, due to disabilities," said Michael Flannery, now a staff attorney for Legal Aid Bureau in Baltimore County who had worked for Smith at Legal Aid.

Smith served as an administrative law judge for the Maryland Office of Administrative Hearings, from 1996 to 1997, where she heard cases stemming from state agencies involving insurance, real estate, licensing and special education; and as an assistant U.S. attorney in Maryland, from 1995 to 1996, prosecuting both criminal and civil environmental cases.

In the Maryland attorney general's office, she started in 1986 assigned to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. She moved to the Maryland Department of the Environment in 1987 and became deputy counsel in 1992.

Smith, a Baltimore resident, is a graduate of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and holds a master's degree from Indiana University and a law degree from the University of Maryland School of Law.

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