With an ever-burgeoning number of lobbyists at work in Annapolis, a special state task force has begun trying to draft a code of conduct for them.

The 13-member commission, formed by legislative leaders to look at the relationship between lawmakers and lobbyists, has been meeting for the past month, hearing about the myriad of laws and regulations governing those relationships.

So far, its chairman says, one thing is clear: The public believes the interplay between legislators and lobbyists is smarmy.

"The perception is something we need to deal with," said former delegate Donald B. Robertson, of Montgomery County. "I didn't become chairman of this commission to do nothing."

At the commission's meeting on Wednesday, Robertson urged that work begin on drafting a code of ethics for the more than 500 lobbyists registered in Maryland.

He also wants a closer examination of the complex laws governing lobbyists and their disclosure requirements, which most experts agree are confusing.

Finally, he has asked the panel to look at the steady rise in the number of group dinners lobbyists put on for legislators, now that one-on-one entertaining of lawmakers is prohibited.

The task force is composed of lobbyists, legislators and members of the public appointed by legislative leaders.

It has heard testimony from lobbyists, watchdog groups such as Common Cause and from Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), a former Maryland House speaker who headed a commission on legislative ethics last year.

Based on that testimony, Robertson has decided his commission also will look at whether there should be more training for lobbyists on the laws governing them, how penalties should be enforced, whether the definition of who is a registered lobbyist should be expanded and what sort of legislation might be needed to prevent lobbyists from serving on political parties' central committees and other issues.

"He's covering the bases I think he should," said commission member William Pitcher, one of Annapolis's top lobbyists. He said he favors some sort of code of ethics, noting that he is subject to one as a lawyer and that the Maryland lobbyists' professional association advocates one.

Still, he isn't sure that the public perception of lobbying in Annapolis is as dire as Robertson believes.

"We keep hearing the public perception of lobbyists and legislators is not good, but nobody has really come before us and said that. I'm not so sure there's a problem that needs to be fixed. And if that is the perception, I'm not sure there's anything we can do in this room" to fix it, he said.

"I'm a student of history," Pitcher said. "There's always going to be distrust of the system."

House Minority Leader Robert H. Kittleman (R-Howard), however, said that the public perception is clear:

"The public believes legislators are bought and paid for by lobbyists," he said.

He said that the commission could help improve that image, but he's worried that once the group's work is done, it won't have much impact.

Last year, legislative leaders firmly backed Cardin's commission, pledging even before it finished its work to make its recommendations law. Kittleman, who also served on that commission, noted that Robertson's group has not received the same support.

"The legislature's going to feel freer to ignore this one," he said ruefully.

Exit Lines Two of Annapolis's top speech writers are packing up their pens.

Brenda DuVall, who has put words in Gov. Parris N. Glendening's mouth since he was Prince George's county executive, is retiring. And Rosalyn M. Hamlet, wordsmith for House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. (D-Allegany), is moving to Washington to write speeches for U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala.

Age-Old Charge As a heckler at professional basketball games and as an anti-tax crusader, Robin Ficker never has made subtlety his strong suit. It seems he won't in his Maryland Republican Senate campaign next year either.

Last week, he branded 66-year-old U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D) too old to serve another term and said that age would be an issue in his campaign.

"The voters have spoken that they do not want people serving in important positions from Maryland past the age of 70," Ficker said, citing Marylanders' rejection, 52 percent to 48 percent, of a state constitutional amendment to lift the mandatory retirement age for judges to 75 in 1994.

"While I believe that many people are physically firm and mentally sharp past 70, the majority of Marylanders have said that the youth and energy [sic] shall serve in these important jobs," Ficker said in a news release last week.

Ficker, 56, said he could not recall how he voted on the amendment.

Sarbanes, who is in his fourth term and is the senior ranking Democrat on the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, would turn 73 by the end of a fifth term. Spokesman Jesse Jacobs ignored Ficker's taunt, saying, "We will address the Republican nominee when the primary is over next March."

Republican Paul H. Rappaport, who said he will announce his bid for the GOP Senate nomination on Oct. 20, disagreed with Ficker. Rappaport is 65.

"You're as old as you feel. All you have to do is look at William Donald Schaefer, who's 77," said Rappaport, citing the Democratic state comptroller and two-term governor. "He's probably one of the smartest people you'll ever know."

More than one-quarter of the members of the U.S. Senate are age 65 or older, as was about 14 percent of the Maryland electorate in 1996.

Ficker has made fitness a running motif of his campaign. He challenged reporters to race the steps of Cole Field House at the University of Maryland and promised to drop out if two beat him. Only one tried--and failed, Ficker said.

New Job for Neas It has been a busy few weeks for Ralph G. Neas, the civil rights lawyer who lost his bid to unseat U.S. Rep. Constance A. Morella (R-Md.) last year.

Last month, he and his wife celebrated the birth of their first child, Maria. Then Neas, already well into preparations for a rematch with Morella, decided to abandon the race and give back all contributions.

Now he has a new job: president of People for the American Way, a civil liberties group based in Washington. His appointment was announced this week, and he will assume the post in January.

Neas brings a stellar set of credentials to the post. For 14 years he led the Leadership Conference for Civil Rights, and as a U.S. Senate staff member, he wrote the Women's Economic Equity Act. He is an erstwhile Republican who left the party because of its increasingly rightward tilt--something his new employer monitors.

"Ralph Neas has led the way in many decisive fights to protect Americans' rights and liberties--helping win key battles that many people said were unwinnable," said David Altschul, chairman of People for the American Way, in making the appointment.

Staff writer Scott Wilson contributed to this report.