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Dispute not personal, city, county chiefs say Amid housing debate, both pledge to work to prevent rifts


Just last month, an outraged Baltimore County executive accused Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke of blindsiding him with a proposal to allow more than 1,300 families to move from inner-city public housing to the suburbs.

But last week the two politicians were on the same team, huddling at Camden Yards during ceremonies to welcome the Cleveland Browns in their announced move to Baltimore.

The quick turnabout illustrates a hallmark of County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III's style -- and Mr. Schmoke's. Although the fellow Democrats still agree to disagree on the public housing issue, neither is taking the flap personally.

Mr. Schmoke is well-known for his low-key, button-down approach. Mr. Ruppersberger's friends, meanwhile, say he is reacting the way he always does -- vigorously, but professionally.

"Dutch and the mayor are not at odds [personally]. That's not Dutch's style," said Bob Barrett, Mr. Ruppersberger's campaign manager for the past 12 years.

In fact, the mayor and county executive talked Monday at the Browns ceremonies and agreed to meet twice monthly, schedules permitting, to forge closer ties and prevent new disputes.

The county executive said he won't let personal feelings block his commitment to the region, especially given the threat of big state and federal budget cuts. The city and county will have to cooperate to protect common interests, he has said.

Mr. Ruppersberger acknowledges that his feelings were hurt because he was excluded from details of the city's settlement of a housing discrimination suit with the American Civil Liberties Union. He calls that "a temporary setback that lasted three to four days."

"I'm over it now," he says, adding that he still hopes to block the settlement, which he believes will add to the county's problems with older neighborhoods.

Mr. Schmoke agrees that no hard feelings remain. "I think it's been a policy issue," he said, when asked whether his relationship with Mr. Ruppersberger has been strained by the settlement.

The goal in scheduling regular meetings of the two local leaders and their staffs is to "raise issues and concerns and not be reactive to crises, but deal with it up front," Mr. Schmoke said.

Meanwhile, state legislators representing the five districts that cross the city-county line are taking sides on the issue.

Del. Emmett C. Burns, Jr., said the mayor was right in agreeing to move public housing families to better neighborhoods. But Delores G. Kelly, the state senator in his district, said the county executive's opposition to the proposal is justified.

For such legislators, the public housing issue -- the first major dispute between the localities -- could test their new regional outlook. And that could develop into a larger problem when the General Assembly convenes in January.

"It's going to get ugly. It already is," said Mr. Burns, a clergyman who represents the new majority African-American 10th District that stretches from West Baltimore to Randallstown. That district and the 8th are mostly in the county; the 47th, 42nd and 46th districts are mainly in the city.

For Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, the exclusion of Mr. Ruppersberger from the agreement is disturbing.

"The last thing the city wants to do is alienate its suburban friends," said Mr. Bromwell, whose 8th District covers Fullerton-Overlea, Parkville and Perry Hall in the county, and a tiny corner of northeast Baltimore.

"We rise and fall as a region," city-based Democrat Del. Samuel I. "Sandy" Rosenberg said.

On the public housing issue, choosing sides is easy for some, such as northeast county Republicans James F. Ports, Jr., and Alfred W. Redmer, Jr., and Democrat Kathy Klausmeier, all from Mr. Bromwell's 8th District. They and their county-based colleagues say there has been plenty of constituent interest -- all of one opinion.

"Dutch is clearly right," Mr. Redmer said. "The mayor didn't bring Dutch into the loop. The relationship has been hurt."

Mr. Ports agreed, predicting that the dispute could have a "very adverse effect" on city-county cooperation in Annapolis.

But Mr. Burns said, "I don't know why Dutch is so upset. The county had nothing to do with the lawsuit. Dutch is making a mountain out of a molehill."

Mr. Burns, one of the county's first four black elected officials, is suspicious that opposition to the settlement is based on the racism that made advocacy of low-income housing a political poison pill in the county for 30 years. Mr. Ruppersberger says that race has no role in this dispute.

Ms. Kelly said the middle-class constituents that she and Mr. Burns represent do not want hundreds of public housing residents who have a "very different life experience," moving to their streets.

"The few pockets of street crime we have in the county are where we have concentrations of [rent-subsidized] residents," she said.

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