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.
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.
In particular, he recalls getting support from Kamenetz on county work force proposals.
"He made some decisions that moved my agenda and were politically challenging for him," Smith said. "As it turned out, I got much better than a honeymoon. I got cooperation and support for the rest of the eight years, and I'd trade [a honeymoon for] that in a heartbeat."
Smith's first major legislative initiative — community revitalization — sought to breathe life into historic neighborhood corridors by giving developers more flexibility and allowing them to more quickly obtain approvals on certain sites, while providing community input before the developer's plan is finalized.
Smith dubbed the effort "Renaissance." Residents were invited to participate in brainstorming sessions where community leaders discussed an area's challenges, assets and resources, and what government could contribute. Residents commented on the assessment, and developers worked to implement a plan. Some sessions attracted several hundred people.
Evidence of the success is concentrated on the county's west and east sides. Crime-infested apartment complexes in Dundalk and Essex-Middle River were torn down to make way for single-family homes and affordable senior housing. A new community center rose in Randallstown.
"It was a multipronged mission I was on to improve older neighborhoods so new families would want to move in," he said.
But while redevelopment projects took hold in sections like Towson, Randallstown and Dundalk, other parts of the county were left behind, said Donna Spicer, a Loch Raven activist.
Efforts to build a library, increase home ownership, enhance business and community partnerships, and make safety and traffic improvements in Loch Raven "dwindled away" during Smith's administration, she said.
"I'm not negating the need of other areas, but all of the areas within the Beltway need help, support and revitalization," Spicer said. "I understand you have to pick and choose where the funding is going to go, but it's not just funding that communities need at times. Sometimes they need moral support."
She added, "You can cut all the ribbons you want. If other places are deteriorating, you haven't accomplished much."
If he were allowed to serve longer, Smith said, he would focus on town centers. He expressed disappointment over vacancies along the Liberty Road commercial corridor, building delays at Owings Mills Town Center, and the sluggish Towson Commons complex.
However, Nancy Hafford, president of the Towson Chamber of Commerce, places the blame on the lagging economy, not Smith's administration.
"He created wonderful initiatives for businesses and developers to come into the area," Hafford said. "People at this time weren't able to make those kinds of commitments."
Balancing the budget
Along with his economic development initiatives, Smith made tough spending calls early in his administration that paid off later when the economy slowed.
As early as 2003, Smith didn't give county employees cost-of-living increases. Surplus tax revenue from property sales was put into school construction and other one-time capital projects, such as recreation centers and libraries.
The county also renegotiated pensions and retirement health benefits, and upped the retirement age. They were a tough sell to employees — the teachers union picketed outside his home — but Smith stood his ground.
The revisions eventually resulted in annual cost savings of $68 million, he said. The county has avoided employee layoffs or furloughs, and tax increases.
"When the real estate market was going through the roof from 2004 to 2007, we realized this wasn't going to last," Smith said. "We banked that money. We didn't put it into our operating budget. We didn't think it would be something that we could count on into the future, so we didn't count on it into the future."
Though critics argued that Smith did not put aside enough money to avoid future pain, many praise Baltimore County as well-run.
Baltimore County's strong showing stands out not only statewide but nationwide, said Michael Sanderson, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties. Smith served as president of the group's board of directors in 2008.
"The county executive and his team were ahead of the curve on some of the challenges with benefits and pensions," Sanderson said. "Baltimore County met some of those challenges quickly, and I think it's served them well."
Smith isn't sure of the road ahead. He flirted this year with running for state comptroller and the state Senate. Though Smith would likely have his pick of opportunities in the public, private and nonprofit sectors, much speculation has centered on a possible high-level position in O'Malley's second-term administration.
"I obviously do not want to retire and don't intend to," he said. "I'm not foreclosing getting back into elected office down the road. I like working with the public, I like serving the public, I like working on public policy. And I think I have something to offer."