Debate over nominee baffles veteran officials


As Baltimore County Council members object to the salary the county executive promised his nominee for the county's No. 2 job and fret about her personality, state legislators who worked with Beverly Swaim-Staley for years can't believe what they are hearing about her.

Some councilmen and county employees said Swaim-Staley has been brusque in her first weeks on the job. And a majority of councilmen object to the $140,000 she has been promised by Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr.

But in Swaim-Staley's years as a legislative analyst in Annapolis and as a top official in the Maryland Department of Transportation, she earned the backing of some of the state's most prominent politicians who say her abilities as an administrator are second to none.

Maryland Chief Administrative Law Judge Thomas E. Dewberry, who until last year was speaker pro tem of the House of Delegates, said Swaim-Staley is not a "warm and fuzzy" type, but she won the respect of the legislators she worked with by being impartial and competent.

"I think she's absolutely fabulous," Dewberry said. "In every position she's ever been in, she's just done a tremendous job. She is probably one of the top administrators in this state as far as I'm concerned. She has certainly deserved every position she's risen to, and every position she has risen to she has taken hold of it and done an A-1 job."

Whether she will get a chance to test her skills in Towson remains to be seen.

This week, four of the seven councilmen voted against a resolution authorizing an increase in the salary for the administrative officer from $115,000 to $140,000, effective June 1, when Swaim-Staley would take office if confirmed. Several councilmen said Swaim-Staley told them she would not take the job for less than the $140,000 Smith promised her, though she declined to comment on whether that was true.

Smith has vowed to fight to get the two additional votes he needs for the salary and confirmation, saying the wages are appropriate given what other counties pay their administrative officers and what Baltimore County pays department heads who would be her subordinates.

But the effort could be difficult - all four councilmen who voted against the resolution said they are set in their positions, and some said they did not think Swaim-Staley has done a good job of selling herself.

"When she came to meet with me, as she did with each of the council members, my sense is that she was talking to me as if she were already confirmed by the council, as opposed to trying to sell herself to me, which caught me somewhat by surprise," said Council Chairman Kevin Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Ruxton Democrat.

"She's certainly a qualified individual," Kamenetz added. "But the question is, Is she the right person for the job?"

Former state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman thinks so. Hoffman, the former chairwoman of the Maryland Senate's Budget and Taxation Committee, which oversees transportation, said if she could hire one person from the Glendening administration, it would be Swaim-Staley.

"Her skills are exactly the skills that an administrative officer should have, and that is not to be a politician and not to be a glad-hander but to be fair and carry out the policy of the executive in a way that is not partisan," Hoffman said. "She'll do a great job at it."

Sen. Donald F. Munson, a Washington County Republican, said he has known Swaim-Staley and her family for years and has always been impressed with her intelligence and dedication.

"This girl goes to a party, and what she does at the party is sit in the corner and figure out answers to state problems," Munson said. "I know this happens."

Swaim-Staley, 46, a Washington County native, has a master's degree in contemporary government and a bachelor's degree in political science from Hood College in Frederick. After six years in Washington County government, she took a job with the state government, where she worked for most of the past 20 years.

Swaim-Staley and her husband, Scott Staley, live in Annapolis, but she has said she is excited to move to Baltimore County, as the charter requires if she is confirmed. She owns horses and said she would like to be able to keep them at home.

In Annapolis, she served as a budget and policy analyst for the General Assembly for 10 years. She then moved to the Department of Transportation, where she eventually rose to the No. 2 job. There, she developed a reputation for dealing with thorny problems - she directly managed Baltimore-Washington International Airport in the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Swaim-Staley said she is excited about the job. She didn't know Smith before interviewing for it, but she heard good things about the county and about him and was interested in his priorities, especially open government and community revitalization.

"It doesn't get any closer to the people than that," she said.

During the years that C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger was county executive, the administrative officer's traditional duties were generally handled by people with political rather than administrative backgrounds. The shift may take councilmen time to get used to, former Sen. Francis X. Kelly said, but Swaim-Staley's record with the state should allay their fears that she will have trouble building strong working relationships in the county.

Munson said he is confident Swaim-Staley will do well in Baltimore County but hopes for the state's sake that the job doesn't work out.

"The county executive could not have gotten himself a better person to do the job, period," Munson said. "If Baltimore County can't get its act together, we'll sure take her back on the state level in a flash."

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