POwer struggle shows no end

THE BALTIMORE SUN

To those who watch Baltimore County politics, the feud between County Executive James T. Smith Jr. and several members of the County Council over appointing Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos to the Revenue Authority is all too familiar.

For one thing, it's just the latest in a series of messy, public arguments over executive appointments. For another, it's over a job that, both sides acknowledge, the average voter has never heard of and doesn't care about.

Members of the small circle of county politicos, government veterans and community activists who pay close attention have predicted any number of times that peace was nigh and have noted some instances of real cooperation.

But the squabbling over Angelos has many wondering: Why does this keep happening and will it ever stop?

"It's the little things that make the headlines, and they shouldn't be issues," said Councilman Kenneth N. Oliver, a Randallstown Democrat. "I don't care who started it, we need to end it. We're probably the laughingstock of the state."

Since December, the council and Smith have argued about the meaning of a charter amendment, the executive's choice of advisers and questions of conflict of interest. But most of the fighting has been about the people Smith has chosen for county jobs, notably administrative officer, Permits and Development Management director, deputy zoning commissioner and now Revenue Authority board member. Council members say they don't object to Angelos personally, but believe they should be allowed to appoint one member to the Revenue Authority.

"They both deserve blame, back and forth," said Donna Spicer, a Loch Raven community activist. "What is the importance of this digging in your heels, putting the line in the sand over what most people see as inconsequential?"

Theories abound about the cause of the conflicts and who is to blame.

Those who take the council's side say Smith, a former Circuit Court judge, is still acting as though he's on the bench and isn't consulting with the council when he makes decisions.

"We are a veteran council that has worked well with the past county executive, and we would like to work well with the present county executive," said Council Chairman Kevin Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Ruxton Democrat. "I don't think that it has been the County Council that has failed the effort here. I don't think it's been the County Council who's been issuing the press releases criticizing the other. I don't think the County Council has been the one going out of the way to make decisions in a vacuum."

Those who take Smith's side say, essentially, that the council is getting too big for its britches and trying to grab more power than the charter grants it.

"The council chairman is a bright and ambitious man, and sometimes he has a tendency to try to govern rather than legislate," Smith said.

The most frequent flash point has been over appointments to the administration and to county boards and commissions. Council members successfully backed a referendum last year giving them expanded confirmation powers over appointments, a move Smith opposed as a candidate.

The vast majority of Smith's appointees were confirmed with little discussion or dissent. A few have led to public spats, though the council had confirmation authority over many of those even before the referendum.

The shape of the conflict has changed recently as Smith has employed a new strategy to bring recalcitrant council members in line.

Believing that if voters hear the administration's side in the Angelos controversy they will agree and pressure the council to confirm him, Smith has released to the news media letters detailing his efforts at compromise and urging Kamenetz to bring the nomination to a vote.

But rather than breaking the logjam, the letters elicited angry reactions from the five council members who have been holding up the nomination.

"It was pointless to put that type of in-your-face letter in the paper," said Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder, a Fullerton Democrat. "That's not the way to do business."

So will this end?

Smith said, so far as he's concerned, it "can and should end right now." He declined to elaborate.

Kamenetz said Smith needs to stop listening to "his young, hotshot staff" who "feel you have to do battle with the County Council as opposed to working with the County Council."

Michael J. Collins, a former state senator from Essex, said he thinks that although the bickering hasn't been over substantive issues, it will become damaging if it doesn't stop soon.

He said he thinks the executive is right, but to stop the fighting, it's going to take the outside intervention of other prominent Democrats - perhaps led by C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger or someone like former County Executive Donald P. Hutchinson.

"The only way I think this is going to be resolved is in the political context," Collins said.

Tom Toporovich, the former secretary to the County Council and a Smith fan, said he thinks Smith needs to start playing hardball. The executive has a lot of power to make life difficult for councilmen, Toporovich said.

"That's not Jimmy's nature to do that, but it is certainly one of the things that the little boys on the council are going to have to learn about if they want to continue to act like little boys," Toporovich said.

Despite the conflict, the executive and council have generally cooperated on substantive issues.

Last spring, some council members questioned Smith's proposal to use $18 million in reserve funds to balance the fiscal 2004 budget, but after a month of hearings, the council decided to make the fewest cuts to an executive's proposal in years and praised him for his fiscal prudence.

And this summer, in the week before a vote on a bill giving binding arbitration rights to police and fire unions, the executive and council worked together to craft the terms of the law.

"Everything we've disagreed on has been basically personnel issues, and as far as legislative items, I think the council has worked well with the executive and the executive has worked well with us," said Councilman Stephen G. Samuel Moxley, a Catonsville Democrat.

Smith has said he plans to roll out a number of initiatives in the coming weeks, and members of the administration and the council have said they will be curious to see whether the trend of agreement on major policy continues.

The conflict so far has done nothing to affect average citizens. Trash is still getting picked up, police still patrol neighborhoods and, if it somehow snowed in August, the streets would get cleared.

But many of those who are watching the conflict said continued bickering over little issues could hinder the government's ability to deal with major problems, like a sudden souring of county finances.

"If it becomes a sort of drumbeat that these people can't get along, that these people can't govern, they can't cooperate, that's not good for the county," Collins said. "I don't think we're anywhere near that yet, but we could be if this keeps going on."

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