No one can deny that, when it has come to Anne Arundel County government, Janet S. Owens has done some remodeling.

In the year since she took over as county executive, the freshman Democrat has remade the executive's Cabinet, replacing 15 top administrators.

In neighboring Howard County, though, the faces in the hallways have not changed. Colleagues have started referring to their low-key, Democratic county executive, James N. Robey, as "Ecker II" or "Ecker Lite" in deference to his predecessor, Charles I. Ecker.

One year ago, residents of Maryland's outer suburbs did some remodeling of their own, casting aside years of Republican leadership in favor of these two political strangers. Owens and Robey swept to victory on the time-tested platform of change and were widely viewed as newcomers cut from the same cloth.

But over the past 12 months, they have set out on different trajectories. Owens has found success cleaning up government, mending the administration's soured relationship with its school board, and addressing ethical lapses that occurred under former county executive John G. Gary.

Robey has found peace in the status quo.

"If Chuck [Ecker] did a good job, wouldn't we want someone to come in and do an equally good job?" said Howard County School Superintendent Michael E. Hickey. "I'm not sure you have to come in and turn the fruit basket upside down."

Voters gravitated to Robey, a former police chief, largely because they could picture the self-described "backslapping, beer drinking, unsophisticated good ol' boy" at ease on their living room couches. Owens won them over, despite few political credentials, by drawing a sharp contrast to her gruff opponent.

What residents didn't know, and are only starting to learn, is how these newcomers would attack such sticky regional issues as education and growth.

While those issues dominate the debate in Anne Arundel and Howard, the two counties have very different political landscapes.

Almost from her first moments in office, Owens was being tested.

In January, the hotly debated proposal for a motor speedway in Pasadena boiled over when she discovered that one of her top advisers was working privately as a lobbyist for the racetrack group. In an act that she believes sent a firm message and set the tone for her administration, she dismissed him.

In March, she faced another political hand grenade, this one tossed by the Ku Klux Klan. The white supremacist group applied to "adopt" a county road and be credited for cleanup work by having its name on a county highway sign. She moved quickly to cancel the program rather than allow the Klan's name to appear under the county seal.

In neighboring Howard County, perhaps the closest thing to a controversy centered on increased anger about the inequities between the county's older and newer schools.

The County Council jumped on the issue, holding a series of public meetings and forming a citizen committee to deliver a report, which it did this month. About a week after the council became involved, Robey joined superintendent Hickey to form a second committee. That group will present its findings next spring.

Some questioned Robey's timing, wondering whether he should have acted faster. But that's not County Council member C. Vernon Gray's complaint.

"I think I would've preferred that he would have moved independently," Gray said, indicating that if Robey was to launch a committee, he should have done it without Hickey.

Hickey says that the joint committee was Robey's initiative and that it was the right move.

The group's report, Hickey said, is likely to affect the coming budget deliberations. "I think that's an important action step on Jim Robey's part."

On broader issues, such as education and farmland preservation, Owens took a more visibly aggressive tack.

She grabbed $1.2 million from the state to help keep the region's voracious suburbs from encroaching on acres of south county farm fields. She budgeted enough to add 67 teachers and created a $40 million fund aimed at patching up the county's run-down classrooms.

"Making those gains in education and agricultural preservation, those are two big nuts," said Thomas C. Andrews, who was Gary's top land planner and recently left Owens's Cabinet for an administrative position in Georgia. "In a constrained budget, those are no small tasks."

Robey says his accomplishments should not be overlooked just because his approach has been more subdued. They include boosting budgets for education and public transportation, proposing legislation to make home buying easier for middle-income residents and tackling an update to the county's General Plan and Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance.

"I was surprised to hear that we were viewed as just being status quo," Robey said. "Maybe that's one of my political shortcomings, that I don't promote Jim Robey."

Many describe Robey's freshman effort as "a listening year."

"He appears to have taken his first year to travel around the county, meet with a lot of groups, get the lay of the land," said former county executive, now state Del. Elizabeth Bobo (D-Howard). "I think that's a pretty wise way, rather than to come out with a whole lot of initiatives."

With both counties wedged between the expanding suburbs of Washington and Baltimore, perhaps the dominant issue this year has been sprawl. And both of the new executives have had difficulty managing the constant tug between anxious developers and residents seeking respite.

In Anne Arundel, Owens stopped the flow of waivers that allowed developers to build without adhering to county guidelines. But she faced constant pressure from builders who considered the county's permit office to be a bureaucracy in chaos. For almost the full year, the division of planning and code enforcement has been without a director.

"It's really a disgrace," said one developer, who would speak only without being named because he has projects pending in the county. "Something that would take a few months in any other county is going to take years in Anne Arundel. It's a leadership vacuum."

Owens acknowledged that the vacancy has taken a toll and promised to deliver a new director "within the next week or so."

Robey, too, has taken shots for his stance on growth.

"We don't feel he's really done anything or has been at all as concerned about growth as he seemed to be when he was running for election," said Harry J. Brodie, a Fulton resident who is among scores fighting two huge mixed-used developments planned for southeastern Howard.

Brodie's chief complaint is that Robey kept in place Planning and Zoning Director Joseph W. Rutter Jr., who was criticized as being too pro-development. "He knew beforehand we would have very much liked to have a new director," Brodie said.

But Robey stands firm on his decision to retain Rutter and the rest of Ecker's Cabinet members.

"As long as we had qualified people, it didn't make sense to me, just for the sake of political shake-up, to replace them," he said.