Robey settling in as executive; Official's schedule starts early, ends late


Sitting alone in a brightly lighted Columbia McDonald's in the rainy gloom before dawn Thursday, Howard County Executive James N. Robey did some work and read the morning newspaper over breakfast, preparing for a 7: 30 a.m. meeting at the nearby Gateway government building.

A family car repair problem brought him out an hour earlier than expected for the start of what turned into a long day of conferences, meetings and briefings, capped at dusk by a few moments of basketball at a county after-school program and then a three-hour banquet-reception.

It's a far cry from the novice executive's life during his political campaign last summer and fall -- day after day of knocking on people's doors, shaking hands and finding any way possible to get into the public eye.

Unlike Anne Arundel County's new executive, Janet S. Owens, who is embroiled in a controversy over a proposed auto track, or Baltimore County's veteran Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, kept in the news by the constant hints of a possible gubernatorial campaign, Robey has remained in the background.

Now, in the dead of winter, with a budget preparation deadline looming and seemingly endless lists of people who really must see him, the soft-voiced former county police chief has seemed to almost disappear from the news.

This week, a picture of a smiling Robey holding a big white cat appears in local newspaper ads promoting pet neutering for the county animal shelter, an example of his recent exposure to the public. On Thursday, he got an offer to appear in a star-shaped "Count M'Up for Maryland" costume to help promote next year's federal census, but he didn't seem eager for the chance to look silly, even for a good cause.

"During the campaign, I would have done that," he said, begging off for the time being.

A quiet man by nature, he has avoided dramatic hirings or firings, sharp policy disputes, grand announcements or televised news conferences.

But following him through an average day's activities reveals what Robey's up to now that the election hoopla has faded.

Thursday's dawn meeting in the Howard Community College board room, atop the Gateway Building, was with the county's Economic Index Committee, an informal group of business representatives formed during the recession five years ago to give county officials a heads-up on retail trends that might eventually affect the public.

Florist Lee Wilhide set the tone with his comment that "Things are still rosy" in his business. News from the others, ranging from Realtors and home builders to restaurant managers and car dealers, was the same. Business remains great, and detached homes in the under-$250,000 range are selling so fast that some buyers are paying more than the asking price.

Robey listened until just before 9 a.m., when he left to return to his Ellicott City office. There, he reviewed his schedule with Donna Corfield, a 12-year secretary in the county Police Department who moved over when Robey became executive.

They sat at a large conference table in the airy, high-ceilinged office. The outer wall is mostly glass, with a view of the trees along Courthouse Drive. The two end walls are brick, and in between, on a dark blue-green carpet, sits a large, computer-equipped mahogany desk with a huge, aqua-colored leather chair. On the wall behind it is a portrait of a bird in a tree.

Later, Victoria Goodman, Robey's public information director, reviewed plans for local newspaper columns and county publications.

Robey answers much of his own computer e-mail, both at the office and at home. The queries come from the public and his department heads, several of whom also met with him during the day.

Between midmorning sessions, he looked up at the gray sky and the bare branches outside and joked, "You shouldn't have to come in [to work] until 10: 30 a.m. on a day like this."

Still, Robey said he likes the job and wants to be re-elected in four years. His hope, he said, is that his schedule will calm down soon.

"All these people coming in to see me are trying to get in early, and I want to accommodate them," he said. The problem is that he can't completely relax and forget county problems, even while sleeping.

"I go to bed thinking about it. I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about it," he said.

From complaints about a developer's closing of Sanner Road (which he wants to personally inspect) near the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab near Fulton, to a controversy over a longtime roadside fruit stand on Old Frederick Road at Orchard Drive, Robey got an earful as he met through the day with Joseph W. Rutter Jr., the county planning director, Police Chief Wayne Livesay, solicitor Barbara Cook, and Fire Chief James Heller. Later, to be more visible, he walked down two floors to Human Resources Director Jimmie Saylor's office to talk about a renewed emphasis on diversity training among county workers.

Between meetings with department heads, he met four representatives of the Howard County Center of African American Culture Inc. who are looking for financial help to the tune of about $5,000 a year.

"I think you're a very vital part of Howard County," he told the group, based in the Red Cross building near Town Center in Columbia, where it is paying $1,100 a month rent to house a small museum. Robey asked for a written request and a copy of the group's budget and activities. He told the representatives that he wants to establish a central clearing-house agency for financial requests from nonprofit groups. He did not commit to give the group money.

After lunch came a meeting on the 2000 census, featuring Anthony Waggoner, a federal census official, who led a delegation of federal, state and county representatives eager to find ways of counting everyone in the county.

According to Waggoner, the 1990 census missed more than 3,000 people in Howard, adding up to about $850,000 in federal formula aid lost each year since then -- an $8.5 million loss.

One of fast-growing Howard's big problems in 1990 was the omission of thousands of new homes from the federal census questionnaire mailing lists. Another was the fear among many immigrants of government contact. "The trust factor is zero," Waggoner said.

After the census group left, Raymond S. Wacks, the county budget director, popped in with news that two of the three New York bond rating houses have approved keeping Howard County's borrowing rate at the elite AAA level.

Robey left the office just before 5 p.m. to pick up his wife, Janet, and they stopped at the annual celebration of the county's Cedar Lane Park after-school program for elementary and middle school children who need adult guidance. There he made a short speech and presented a computer donated by Goodman, the public information director, and information office worker Mike Duffy, who won it at last summer's Maryland Association of Counties convention.

Operated like a Police Athletic League, the program teams adults from police, recreation and other county agencies to work with children who need positive adult leadership. Together, they do homework, tutoring, sports and games.

Robey then dropped his wife at the car-repair garage and drove to his last stop of the day -- the 1999 Equal Business Opportunity Awards dinner at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.

It was another late finish, but the weary executive had some relief in mind -- an annual four-day golf outing to Florida this week to recharge his batteries.

Pub Date: 2/20/99

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