It was veteran Maryland lobbyist James Doyle who summed it up best: "There are many people in the state who believe 'lobbying ethics' is an oxymoron."

But there they were anyway, Doyle and 12 other members of the Study Commission on Lobbyists Ethics, which met for the first time last week and will work through autumn studying the laws regulating the hundreds of lobbyists who work in Annapolis.

The commission was formed by lawmakers who decided it was time to find out whether regulations on lobbyists were adequate. The study comes a year after a similar commission looked at legislative ethics and recommended many changes in how legislators can interact with lobbyists--changes that many lobbyists said they've found confusing or illogical.

Former delegate Donald B. Robertson, of Montgomery County, is chairman. He has scheduled meetings almost weekly between now and November, including a public hearing whose participants will include Common Cause, the League of Women Voters and a professional organization of lobbyists.

The study comes at a time when lobbying is a thriving business in Maryland. There are 571 people registered to lobby, far more than just a decade ago. And there are some important new trends as well, John O'Donnell, executive director of the State Ethics Commission, told the study group. The Ethics Commission registers lobbyists and is the clearinghouse for the lobbyists to report their clients, fees and expenses.

"The number of employers [or clients] is growing faster than the number of lobbyists," O'Donnell said. "What that really means is that more and more power is being placed in the hands of less and less."

He said that the top 24 lobbyists accounted for about half of all the lobbying fees. That means those lobbyists frequently have closer relationships with legislators and more influence.

Changes in lobbying laws that take effect Oct. 1 may only heighten that influence. Although lobbyists will be barred from buying meals for individual lawmakers, they still will be allowed to entertain legislative committees and delegations.

Those group dinners usually are held at the toniest restaurants in Annapolis and can cost several thousand dollars. That means a lobbyist with deep pockets still can entertain, but one on a tighter budget will have it tougher.

"I can't take a single legislator out for a bottle of beer. Yet if I can finagle enough money from my clients, I can throw the most lavish dinners," said Doyle, a member of the study group who is considered the dean of the lobbying corps. "That's an inconsistency that makes no sense. It's a reform that doesn't work."

The new law hasn't even taken effect yet, but it's already in practice: In 1995, lobbyists reported spending $416,000 for one-on-one meals with lawmakers, O'Donnell said. By 1998, that dropped to $57,000. In that same period, spending on dinners and receptions for groups of legislators more than doubled, from $245,000 to more than $500,000.

In the first six months of this year, O'Donnell said, one-on-one meals amounted to $22,000. But lobbyists spent $556,000 on group dinners and receptions.

In addition to Robertson and Doyle, the other panel members are lobbyists Annie Kronk, William Pitcher and Joel Rozner; Sens. Michael J. Collins (D-Baltimore County) and Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery); Dels. John S. Arnick (D-Baltimore County), Robert H. Kittleman (R-Howard) and Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore); and public members Herbert Alexander, a retired University of Southern California professor, Wilveria Riddick, a Baltimore schoolteacher, and Dorothy Fait, a Rockville lawyer.

The commission's next meeting will be at the House Office Building in Annapolis at 8:30 a.m. Sept. 22.

Longtime Official to Retire

Robert L. Swann, a popular state official who served briefly as comptroller after the death of Louis L. Goldstein last year, has announced that he's retiring Oct. 1.

Swann, a native of Calvert County, joined the comptroller's office in 1961, working for Goldstein, who went on to be the longest-serving state official in Maryland history. Goldstein died in July 1998, and Swann, who was deputy comptroller, was appointed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) to fill in at the top job until after that year's election. Former governor William Donald Schaefer (D) was elected and took office in January. Swann resumed his old job as deputy, overseeing data processing, general accounting, payroll and budget functions for the office, which acts primarily as Maryland's tax collector.

"Anything I've achieved in my career I owe to the late comptroller Louis Goldstein and to my co-workers in the Comptroller's Office," Swann said in a statement. "And although I'm retiring, I'll always maintain a great interest in the affairs of the state of Maryland."

Children's Chairmen Named

Del. Mark K. Shriver (D-Montgomery) and Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer (D-Howard) have been appointed co-chairmen of the new Joint Committee on Children, Youth and Families.

The committee of 10 delegates and 10 senators is the first ever in Maryland to focus on children's issues.

Shriver is founder and executive director of Choice Programs, which helps juvenile delinquents. He has long been active in children's issues in the legislature.

Official Switches Counties

Arlington County is losing an important player to Montgomery County.

Jorge M. Gonzalez, assistant county manager, who has been a key player in Arlington County issues since 1995, is heading across the river to become senior assistant chief administrative officer for the Maryland suburb.

Gonzalez's new job is the highest position in Montgomery County's merit employment system.

Trucker Shows Guest the Road

Last Thursday was take-your-transportation-secretary-to-work day for trucker Dawn Nichol.

Frustrated by the aggressive driving she sees while hauling toys for Toys R Us, the 31-year-old Gaithersburg woman wrote to Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) in March, pleading for driver education that teaches people to share the road with trucks.

"I hope you can understand how I feel, and if you can't I invite you to ride with me one night," she wrote.

She never really expected Glendening to take her up on the offer.

He didn't, but Maryland Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari did, asking her to meet him at his office at the Department of Transportation headquarters near Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Nichol, wearing a black T-shirt she had made that read "God loves truckers too" on its back, handed Porcari an identical shirt as a gift. She then opened the truck's passenger door for him, holding it ajar until he climbed way up into his seat and pulled the seat belt around him.

And then the two were off, alone in a tractor-trailer plastered with a smiling giraffe, for an eye-opening 35-minute ride along some of Howard and Baltimore counties' busiest routes.

Early on, a white Geo Metro merging from Interstate 295 onto Interstate 195 darted in front of Nichol on its way to the far left lane, cutting her off and causing her to tap her brakes hard. There were a few more instances like that as Nichol and Porcari headed to Interstate 95 north, then to the Baltimore Beltway, Interstate 70 and Route 29 south and back toward Department of Transportation headquarters via Route 100 and I-295. Porcari saw how difficult it is for a truck to switch lanes--no one wants to let a big rig in front of them--and what massive blind spots trucks have on both sides and behind them.

"I think both personally and professionally it gave me a new perspective," Porcari said to a gaggle of television cameras after hopping down from the rig.

Nichol doesn't pretend that all truckers drive safely. She admits that some make pretty dangerous moves at times. But she thinks most truckers get a bad rap, and Porcari agreed. Last year, he said, two-thirds of the fatal crashes in Maryland involving large trucks were caused by the other driver, not the trucker.

Porcari used the event to highlight truck safety, urging motorists to help truckers by staying out of their blind spots and by remembering that for a truck to stop completely takes three to four times the distance it takes a car.

"You can't repeal the laws of physics here," he said.

Staff writer Angela Paik contributed to this column.