Kamenetz takes over

Our view: The former councilman promises to bring a blend of experience and new ideas to Baltimore County's top job — he'll need both, given the challenges ahead

November 28, 2010

When James T. Smith Jr. prepared to take office as Baltimore County executive eight years ago, he amassed a 27-member transition team, designed to reflect the geographic and ethnic diversity of the county and to draw on expertise in law, the economy, the environment, education, organized labor, transportation and community revitalization. Four years later, when Sheila Dixon was preparing to take the reins at Baltimore City Hall, her transition team was 47 members strong; they eventually produced a 97-page report with 245 recommendations for city government. Three years after that, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake pulled together some 150 people to help with her ascendency to Baltimore's top job.

In about a week, Kevin Kamenetz will take the oath of office as Baltimore County's 11th county executive. His transition team? One guy, Ted Venetoulis, who was county executive No. 5, back when Mr. Kamenetz was in high school.

This fact reflects two things about the Pikesville Democrat. First, after 16 years on the County Council, he doesn't need a lot of help figuring out what's going on in county government or thinking about ways things could be done differently. And second, he's not the kind of person who feels the need, either as a nod to humility or inclusiveness, to pretend that he does. That could look like no-nonsense competence or unrestrained arrogance; the verdict will depend on how well he navigates what promises to be a difficult few months ahead.

The immediate challenge is likely to be the county's budget. Baltimore County is in much stronger fiscal shape than many other jurisdictions, thanks to years of diligent efforts to slow the growth of spending and to avoid the temptation to make permanent commitments during flush times. Mr. Kamenetz is steeped in that tradition and will continue it in his administration; he's already pledged to look for ways to reduce the size of the county government workforce through attrition and to improve efficiency through technology.

But the problem is likely to get worse through no fault of his — the state's budget troubles are more likely than not to result in shifting as much as half of teacher pension costs onto local governments, and probably sooner rather than later. Mr. Kamenetz and his fellow local leaders will mount a lobbying effort against the idea, but he needs to proceed on the assumption that he will have to plug that $160 million hole very soon.

But he also faces long-term challenges in managing an aging suburban county, whose days as a growth center for the region are long gone and where efforts to revitalize neighborhoods and commercial districts that weren't well planned to begin with have had limited success. The industrial waterfront at Sparrows Point is in bad need of reinvention, the planned business hub at the extension of Route 43 hasn't taken off, and the malls that a generation ago killed off downtown businesses are now dying themselves. Overcoming these problems to make the county a place where multiple generations continue to thrive is going to take innovation, a world-class, community-focused planning effort and relentless follow-through.

Complicating matters, Mr. Kamenetz will be working with a largely inexperienced County Council. Five of the seven members will be new, and how they will work together and form coalitions is entirely unpredictable.

That will have a strong bearing on Mr. Kamenetz's early success or failure. For starters, as Ms. Rawlings-Blake learned in the spring, a determined council can make closing a budget gap difficult, even in jurisdictions like Baltimore City and Baltimore County, where the executive largely controls the purse strings. And second, thanks to a charter amendment Mr. Kamenetz helped push through, he will need council confirmation for his department heads — even those he carries over from the Smith administration. (Once again, he can thank himself for that, having insisted on setting the precedent eight years ago.)

Mr. Kamenetz was a keen observer of (and participant in) the troubles Mr. Smith had during his early days in office, so he should be mindful of the pitfalls of shifting into an executive role. The new executive has said he would like to blend some of the qualities Mr. Smith had with those of his more gregarious predecessor, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger. But Mr. Ruppersberger's easy ability to rally a team is not a trait Mr. Kamenetz is famous for. On the council, he was the smartest guy in the room, he knew it, and he had an unfortunate tendency of making sure everyone else did, too. Ultimately, that didn't stop him from being effective, and time and self-awareness have softened some of those edges. Nonetheless, the situation calls for him to display openness and a willingness to collaborate.

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