Are cute-kid photos innocent, or a sly tactic?

Web site evokes the `awww' factor


Story time was about to begin yesterday at the Randallstown library, but first the county executive surfed through the newly created kids' section on the county's Web site. Pages on local history, things to do for the family and the nuts and bolts of government flashed on a pull-down screen.

Then, James T. Smith Jr. came to a section with mini-profiles of Baltimore County elected officials who "help run our county and make our lives easier" - with a picture of himself as a 4-year-old with curly locks.

Some of the grown-ups oohed. Some laughed.

"Whatever happened to me?" Smith said. "It's very tough to grow up, kids."

The launching of "The Kid's Zone" was hailed by officials yesterday as a place for children, target age 9 to 12, to learn about the county and its government. And, while they're at it, the youngsters can find out that Caddyshack is one councilman's favorite movie, and that another counts sushi as his favorite food.

But while Smith said the childhood photos were not his idea, others wondered whether officeholders running for re-election aren't getting a little boost at taxpayers' expense.

"It could be perfectly innocent, but since these are politicians, I doubt it," Matthew A. Crenson, a political scientist at the Johns Hopkins University, said yesterday. "The incumbent politicians use their offices to project favorable impressions of themselves across the public, using the facility of the government that they're members of."

Donald I. Mohler, a Smith spokesman, said that using the Web site to sway voters "never even crossed our minds."

"In a number of the cases, we had to cajole a little bit, the elected leaders, to say, `Come on, give us the pictures,'" he said. "Kids are so media-savvy today. And they're so into all the different Web sites. We've got to put something on there that will jazz it up a little bit."

Smith said the idea for a children's section on the county site came from his adult son, Michael, who found a site on things to do with children for a visit to Cobb County in suburban Atlanta. The county executive turned to assistant communications specialists Gregory Flynn and Bryan Dunn to decide on content for the county site.

It includes "Area Attractions," with listings of parks and historical sites, movie theaters and bowling alleys, and "Travel Through Time," tracing county history from the first Colonial settlements in the 1650s to the County Council's passage in 2004 of "Renaissance Opportunity Legislation," a major Smith revitalization initiative.

The site also has a section on "How Baltimore County Works," with information on such government functions as snow removal, police and fire protection, sewage, roads and libraries.

Another section is labeled "Get to Know Your County Officials."

Councilman John Olszewski Sr.'s favorite sports memory is breaking up a no-hitter in the ninth inning.

Smokey and the Bandit is Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder's favorite movie, and Councilman Stephen G. Samuel Moxley likes Caddyshack.

In his Q&A, Councilman Kenneth N. Oliver says smooth jazz is his favorite music. Councilman Vincent J. Gardina prefers rock 'n' roll. Councilman Kevin Kamenetz likes sushi, and Councilman T. Bryan McIntire loves lobster.

"I'm not sure if my parents served lobster when I was a boy, but it's certainly a taste I've acquired," he said yesterday.

McIntire, the lone Republican among elected officials on the site, guesses he was 5 years old in the black-and-white, snow-scene photo on the Web site.

Flynn said it was his idea to add pictures of the county officials in their youth to the site. Most councilmen have a picture of themselves as adults next to a picture from their childhood. A young Kamenetz wears a bow tie. There's Bartenfelder in his sixth-grade class picture, which he said he chose because his sons are about that age now.

The page also includes words of wisdom from the officials.

"Many people told me how important it was to give something back to the community, and that has proven to be very true over the years" is Smith's advice to youngsters.

Clarence W. Bell Jr., a state police commander and a Republican candidate for county executive, pointed out that there were already pictures of Smith and the council members on the government Web sites.

"I guess the public will have to decide whether or not it's excess" to add childhood pictures and personal information on the officeholders, he said yesterday. "That's the way it appears to me."

Bobbie Walton, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, a nonprofit public interest watchdog group, said that listing such information as favorite foods for council members "seems to be a PR thing rather than an educational thing."

Crenson, the Hopkins political scientist, said the site might be for children, but some are likely to ask their parents - the voters - for help in navigating it.

"So their parents will get to see this stuff, too," he said. "They will come to know their County Council members are people who were once children, instead of the people we know today. ... This is a way to prove it, and make them seem a little more human."

Asked whether the site crosses any line between government information and political promotion, Mohler, the Smith spokesman, said, "I can't imagine we've even come close to it."

It is, he said, designed to be fun for kids, and send a message that government is not boring, and that the people who run it are "real, everyday folks."

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