`Iron lady' gets job done in Howard

`Communicator': Raquel Sanudo, the county's chief administrative officer for 14 years, gains praise and respect for the way she works.

August 19, 2005|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

At 62, Raquel Sanudo appears to be a friendly, easygoing and good-humored person with a motherly manner.

But there's more.

"Raquel is an iron lady," said County Executive James N. Robey, her boss for most of the past seven years. "She can be tough as nails."

Sanudo is Howard's chief administrative officer and has been for 14 years under Robey, a Democrat, and Charles I. Ecker, a Republican. When the executive is away, the County Charter makes her acting executive. At other times, she supervises County Council legislation, the county budget, personnel, purchasing, insurance and bond sales.

Her job might not be glamorous, but it is highly valued. As the county's top appointed official, she earns $154,290 a year - about $23,000 a year more than Robey.

"She's a good communicator and a good listener," said Ecker, now superintendent of schools in Carroll County. "She's good with the public. She is tough, but she's tough with a smile."

As Howard officials trooped to Ocean City this week for the annual Maryland Association of Counties summer conference, Sanudo stayed at her desk in Ellicott City, running county government.

Her philosophy, she said, is simple. "If you have a problem, let's find a solution," she said. "Do it in a quiet, placid way - seamless. I'm not an interesting person - just get the job done."

A Brooklyn, N.Y., native who spoke Spanish first as a child, Sanudo is planning on retiring in a year or two. In retirement, Sanudo, whose parents were born in Spain and Algeria, would like to be a volunteer teacher of Spanish to elementary school pupils in the county, she said.

The former Raquel Camallonga met her husband, Vincent, while they were students at Long Island University. After they married, and his job at Social Security took him to Woodlawn, the couple moved in 1967 to Howard County, where they raised their two children.

A liberal arts graduate, Sanudo did some substitute teaching and later became director of the county Chamber of Commerce.

That is where she did some legislative work with a young member of the Maryland House of Delegates, J. Hugh Nichols, a Democrat who won election as county executive in 1978.

Nichols offered her a job as his top assistant for $18,000 a year.

"She paid attention to detail and was always very precise," said Nichols, now 75 and living in rural Alabama. "Not only that, she had the ability to talk to people on both sides of an issue without making either one angry. That is key."

Seven years later, as Nichols neared the end of his second and last term, Sanudo left to become executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties. She held the job until 1991, when Ecker lured her back.

"Howard County was home," she said, recalling that she had known and worked with Ecker, then a senior school system official, while Nichols was executive. Similarly, Robey was county police chief during most of Ecker's term as executive.

Sanudo has helped Ecker and Robey guide the county government through two tough recessions a decade apart, and she has done it without incurring any partisan criticism.

"When [former budget director] Ray Wacks left [in February], she really took charge of the budget process," said County Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican.

"I'd say the experience was good," he concluded.

Councilman Charles C. Feaga, a western county Republican who worked with Sanudo in the 1990s, called her "dedicated."

"I like Raquel," he said. "She's done a great job."

"She is a staunch advocate for the institution of government," added County Council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat.

Over the years, the major county issues - land use, school crowding, Columbia - don't change much, Sanudo said.

"What does change is how you handle them," she said.

The county population has more than doubled since she left the Nichols administration, and people often have more objections and want more say in government decisions.

It is a recipe that makes for some sleepless nights.

"I worry about having to make decisions that don't please everybody," she said.

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