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Laurel City Council president wears many hats

When newly elected City Council President Fred Smalls first decided to run for a council seat in 2001, he couldn't have predicted that 11 years later, he'd be entering his 12th year as a council member and his third term as council president.

"I had always been intrigued by local government and through Mayor Frank Casula, I became increasingly interested in what was going on in the city," Smalls said sitting inside the Laurel Municipal Center on a recent afternoon.

"During that time, (Casula) had a variety of folks trying to persuade me to run and finally (former mayor) Bob DiPietro laid the telling blow," Smalls, 62, said with a chuckle. "I kind of caved under pressure and decided to throw my hat in. Eleven years later, here I still sit."

Smalls, who cut his political teeth as president of the Belle Ami Homeowner's Association about 15 years ago, currently works as the deputy secretary of state for administration, finance and human resources at the Maryland Secretary of State's office in Annapolis.

Smalls' experience, along with his personality, is one of the reasons why 2012 Council President Donna Crary advocated for him as her successor.

"The most important quality to have is that of mediator; you are going to mediate between council members, the mayor and the public, and that's what I like about Fred," Crary said. "It is important to be flexible; you may personally, as a leader, want to advance certain things, but you have to put those aside for the good of the council and the constituents."

In the spirit of mediation, Smalls said he hopes to increase communication lines within the city during his tenure as president.

"I want to get the city to do more outreach through social media, and through a number of other platforms to help us inform and reach the residents better than we have," Smalls said. "The more information we can put out there, the more we are talking with and discussing issues with our residents, the better we can serve them."

Crary said expanding communication between the city and its residents is an important initiative.

"We have to ask ourselves, what can we do to improve our communication? We want to engage the public so it is a two way conversation," Crary said.

In addition to expanding communication, Smalls also hopes to continue the momentum from the recent real estate development boom by drawing on his 11 years serving on the city's Planning Commission, nine of which he was a voting member.

While on the commission, Smalls helped facilitate the implementation of six to eight overlay zones in development areas — such as the site of the Towne Centre at Laurel — which allows developers to have more flexibility in regard to zoning regulations.

"It allows for a variety of different uses that may not be a part of the underlying zoning allowance. ... It is a tool that the developers use with city approval to take advantage of developing more transit oriented developments. It's really opened the city up to allow us to do different kinds of development," Smalls said.

In addition to economic development, Smalls said he wants to make sure the city is staying fiscally responsible in 2013.

"I'll be working with the mayor, administration and City Council to ensure that we continue developing revenue sources that allow us to provide the top quality services to residents," Small said.

Two roles as president

Serving on the council in addition to working under the Maryland secretary of state hasn't prevented Smalls from becoming heavily involved with Laurel Regional Hospital, where he now serves as president of the hospital's board of directors.

Working as president of both the council and the hospital board, Smalls hopes to increase the hospital's involvement with the community and vice versa.

"He's been a great supporter of the hospital, and has always been very interested in making sure the hospital is involved with the community," said Gloria Ceballos, Laurel Regional Hospital's vice president of patient care. "He wants to always expose the hospital to what's going on in the community, and encourages us to be a part of what's going on in Laurel."

Ceballos echoed Crary's sentiment and called Smalls a great communicator, who is willing to listen to every side and point of view.

"He is our spokesman, and he's made it very clear to us he wants the hospital to really be involved, to have a voice and be present," Ceballos said.

In addition to serving on Laurel Regional Hospital's board, Smalls also serves on the board of directors for Dimensions Health Care, the hospital's parent company.

Carol Cawthorne, Dimensions' vice president of ancillary services, has worked alongside Smalls for nine years, and described him as the kind of leader who is not afraid of being challenged.

"He's a decision-maker, and he's not afraid to make decisions that aren't popular," Cawthorne said. "He's done a lot to make board members aware of their roles, and I'm impressed that he's gone to the lengths he has to make the board as functional as it can be."

Liking local government

While it's almost a full year away, Smalls, after some light prodding, addressed what his future might hold after his fifth council term is up in November.

"I'm focused right now on being the best council member I can, and doing the best job as president I can. My job and family commitments are making me think very seriously if I want to continue to serve, but I'll serve in other capacities whatever I decide to do," Smalls said.

In 2008, Smalls unsuccessfully ran for a seat on the Prince George's County Council, an experience he said was a real eye-opener for him.

"I enjoyed the campaigning, but I like local government. I like walking into Giant or Safeway, or anywhere else around the city, and running into someone with a problem, making a phone call and taking care of it. I like that kind of contact with the folks I live around," Smalls said.

When asked if he would consider a mayoral run some time down the road, Smalls smiled and shrugged it off.

"Would I like to be mayor? Sure. But we have an extremely capable mayor, and I will continue to support him until he decides he no longer wants to be mayor," he said.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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