Balto. County's Smith makes good on promise

The executive holds first `roundtable' meeting with Woodlawn residents

October 13, 2003|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

As the residents of Woodlawn see it, Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. did a strange and wondrous thing last week: He made good on his campaign promise to come back, listen to them and try to help.

"I've learned to expect anything in politics," Beverly Randall, a resident of the Chadwick neighborhood, said of the executive's return visit. "I mean, Arnold Schwarzenegger is a governor now, so anything's possible."

One of Smith's most prominent campaign pledges was to hold community roundtable meetings in different parts of the county to hear residents talk about problems and look for ways to solve them.

His campaign plan was a bit more elaborate than what transpired Thursday night -- he had envisioned broadcasting the meetings on cable, bringing department heads with him to immediately solve problems and taking comments by telephone and e-mail -- but this pared-down trial run met with general approval from the 100 people who attended.

When people expressed shock that Smith would come back to Woodlawn, they were kidding, but only a little. Although Smith didn't make a lot of specific promises -- his mantra for the evening was "I'll look into it" -- many of those in attendance said they believed the meeting marked a turning point in what they see as years of neglect. The gathering, they said, might even cause more residents to get involved.

"I've lived in Woodlawn for 32 years, and this is the first county executive that has taken any interest in Woodlawn whatsoever," said Nancy Lafferty, who lives in the Windsor Mill area.

But as much as residents hope the meeting marked a turning point for Woodlawn, it has the potential to be one for the Smith administration, too.

`I really like people'

When Smith announced two years ago that he would step down as a Circuit Court judge and run for county executive, he said he believed in grass-roots governance and bringing neighborhood groups into the political process.

He met with thousands of residents in his "listening tour" of the county during the campaign and even did a roundtable meeting trial run in Randallstown.

It was, he said, his favorite part of the campaign.

"I really like people and I really care about people and I really like to hear from people," he said.

When he took office nine months ago, Smith said he expected to start doing the community roundtables in January. January came and went, but no meeting.

After six months in office, still no meeting. When asked why, he said he decided against doing them for fear of appearing to encroach on the turf of County Council members. He said he would attend community association meetings instead.

But Smith said that now that he has settled in to the day-to-day demands of the job and is on a more comfortable footing with the council, the time was right to try a roundtable meeting.

Smith said he hopes that residents will use the meetings to think about their assets and challenges and to become excited about improving their communities.

"At least the people in that room recognized that the citizens have to be involved in working on these challenges and maximizing these assets," Smith said. "I think that's very healthy and very promising."

The idea of a county executive going out to talk directly to the people isn't new. Roger B. Hayden, a Republican who served as executive from 1990 to 1994, hung a map of the county in his office and stuck pins in each community where he had attended a neighborhood meeting. By the end of his four years, the map was covered with pins. Hayden also held office hours during which he talked one on one to whomever showed up.

Smith's meeting Thursday appeared designed to be a signature piece for his administration. The meeting was billed as the first "Renaissance Roundtable," "renaissance" being Smith's favored term for revitalization. And during the two-hour affair, the executive stood in front of six blue banners, about 5 feet by 3 feet, with the words "Renaissance Spirit Community Today" and "Heritage Neighborhoods Today" running across them in alternating diagonals.

For the first of what Smith intends to be monthly affairs, the executive went to friendly territory. Not only was it in the district of his most consistent ally on the council, Democrat Kenneth N. Oliver of Randallstown, it was also in a community he won overwhelmingly. Smith beat his opponent by more than 5,000 votes in Woodlawn, better than twice his margin in Reisterstown, the community where he has lived his entire life.

Accordingly, the meeting was a fairly tame affair. Before the meeting, Smith picked 10 community, business, educational and religious leaders to serve on a panel. For the first 90 minutes Smith talked exclusively to them about their ideas and concerns, which centered on issues such as traffic, litter, parental involvement in schools and absentee landlords.

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