Baltimore County Executive Smith reflects on past, future

Smith will leave office Dec. 6 after an eight-year tenure

(Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun )
December 03, 2010|By Raven L. Hill, The Baltimore Sun

It didn't start well for Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. when he took the job in 2002.

In his first week, he clashed with the County Council over top-level appointments — the first of several public spats that generated friction between the executive and legislative branches. Some people thought the former Circuit Court judge was crazy to trade the quiet solitude of a judicial chambers to run an organization with thousands of employees and a budget that now tops $2 billion. He asked himself more than once during those first few months: "What have I gotten myself into?"

But Smith soon realized that his effectiveness would depend on a more collaborative approach than he'd used on the bench. Over time, he increasingly sought input from council member and residents. Early power struggles gave way to a relatively tranquil eight-year period much appreciated by residents who value no-frills government, solid schools and safe neighborhoods.

With his successor to be sworn in on Monday, Smith, 68, is leaving behind a record of revitalization projects on the county's east and west sides and a lean and stable budget. He will walk away with high favorability ratings and a solid reputation that puts his name in the mix for governor or other statewide office. Smith, who is prevented by law from seeking a third term, still isn't sure what his next job will be. But he insists that his political career is not over.

'Growing pains'

For Smith, the county executive job meshed well with his outlook on public service. He recalled the satisfaction he got doing "front-end work" as a member of the County Council in the 1970s and 1980s. He left the council in 1985 when he was appointed to the Circuit Court.

"I thought Baltimore County was going through a period of transition," Smith said. "Before things got bad, I wanted to step in and help to navigate a revival."

Smith stepped into the shoes of a popular, gregarious predecessor, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, and his larger-than-life personality and governing style. Smith's more reserved nature is a reflection of his 16 years on the bench.

"He doesn't make any rash decisions. He's careful about taking his time," said Peter O'Malley, his former chief of staff and Gov. Martin O'Malley's brother. "He has a measured approach to governing."

However, the traits that had served Smith well on the bench didn't transfer smoothly to county government.

As a judge, Smith had complete control of his courtroom surroundings; he didn't necessarily consult with others before making a decision, and moved on to the next case once the decision was made, said Kevin Kamenetz, who was then council chairman and who will succeed Smith.

"A county executive has to seek a lot of opinions before making a decision," Kamenetz said. "And then once you make a decision, you must have the willingness to reconsider it."

It didn't help that Smith faced a veteran council where a majority of the members had served for eight years under Ruppersberger.

In his first year as executive, Smith bickered with council members over how much say they should have in his choice of advisers.

He and Kamenetz sniped at each other in a 2003 Baltimore Sun article on the conflicts. Kamenetz blamed the executive for failing to make an effort to consult with the council. Smith accused Kamenetz of trying to "govern rather than legislate."

Looking back, Kamenetz acknowledged that "there were some growing pains, but everyone adjusted over a period of time."

The executive's relationship with the council improved as he got into their districts, said current Council Chairman John A. Olszewski Sr.

"As Jim got into his job more, he understood the whole county better, and then he could relate better to the council and the districts they represented," Olszewski said. "He actually had some knowledge as a former councilman, so he wasn't coming in blind. But at the same time, when he was a councilman, he was focusing on his district."

Smith said he expected a honeymoon period while he used the first few months to interview potential staffers. He said some council members mistakenly thought the lag time meant that he couldn't get his administration off the ground or that he wanted to run a one-man show.

"The issue wasn't that I wouldn't collaborate, it's just that nobody was there to collaborate with," Smith said. "I didn't have the people in place yet."

Though there was a lot of public back-and-forth on his early proposals, Smith recalled being denied only twice by the council: once on his choice for county administrative officer and again when he selected Orioles owner and prominent trial attorney Peter G. Angelos for a spot on the Revenue Authority, which oversees golf courses and parking garages.

For most of his tenure, budget proposals haven't been contentious, and he generally received council backing on tough initiatives, such as restructuring employee pensions and implementing binding arbitration measures.

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