Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, two Democrats eyeing their party's 2006 gubernatorial nomination, put in appearances last week at the Maryland Association of Counties' annual summer conference in Ocean City. Not unexpectedly, O'Malley did so in a somewhat splashier fashion.

The mayor hosted a "dessert reception" attended by hundreds immediately after the premier see-and-be-seen event of the four-day convention: Friday night's crab feast, which drew many power brokers from Annapolis in addition to county officials from across the state.

For those seeking a nightcap, O'Malley bought the beer and munchies later that evening at Shenanigan's Irish Pub on the boardwalk. He spent much of the two-hour gathering onstage, playing guitar, both solo and with members of the Irish band performing that night.

As for Duncan, he turned in a workmanlike performance the first two days of the convention. He played host Thursday morning at the "Big 7" breakfast, which featured representatives from the state's six largest counties and Baltimore. He also worked in a house party Thursday with potential supporters from the Ocean City area before leaving that night to drive his son back to college in Atlanta.

Duncan and O'Malley also teamed up during the week to release a joint letter to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) decrying cuts in land conservation programs since Ehrlich took office.

"We urge you to get the state back on track with respect to land conservation, and put in place a strong plan to stop sprawl development," said the letter, which Ehrlich dismissed through a spokesman as politicking.

O'Malley hung around Saturday to hear Ehrlich address the gathering, but the mayor remained nearly mute when asked what he thought of the speech.

"It was nice of him to come to MACo," O'Malley said, later adding: "I didn't hear anything new."

Business and Pleasure

Ehrlich and his administration were a dominating presence at the convention. Senior officials took part in numerous receptions and panel discussions, and Ehrlich and his family spent the week stationed in Ocean City on what the governor dubbed a "working vacation."

First lady Kendel Ehrlich moderated a panel that explored drug treatment as an alternative to incarceration of nonviolent offenders.

"You're probably wondering what I'm doing here," she said at the outset, before mentioning her days as a public defender. "I just have a real interest in this stuff. . . . It's in my heart. It has been for a long time."

The first lady praised the audience for turning out for a heavy policy discussion on a beautiful Friday afternoon, when other activities beckoned.

"My husband's on the golf course, or he'd be here, I'm sure," she said.

Among the governor's brightest moments during the week was a Wednesday fundraiser thrown by Brice and Shirley Phillips of the Phillips Seafood chain that was organized by Eastern Shore Democrats who have closely aligned themselves with former Gov. William Donald Schaefer. They included Lenny Berger, an Ocean City hotelier. Schaefer gave the governor a rousing introduction.

Audits and Probes

Something is amiss at the Maryland Office of People's Counsel, but what it is remains a mystery, at least for now.

Patricia A. Smith was appointed to the obscure state post Oct. 8, taking charge of a small office that is responsible for representing consumers of electricity and other utilities before the Maryland Public Service Commission.

Smith's appointment came after the unexplained dismissal of a man widely considered to be one of the state's most outspoken advocates for consumers, Michael J. Travieso. Since Smith took over the 18-person office, one-third of the staff has been fired or has resigned. (Smith won't say which of the six left on their own accord and which were forced out.)

As this exodus was occurring, Smith ordered the agency's Baltimore office outfitted with a $5,176 keyless entry security system, and she put out a request for an outside auditor to review the books.

Moreover, according to a June 1 letter from an attorney representing former deputy people's counsel Sandra M. Guthorn, Smith called the Maryland State Police to the office to conduct "a brief criminal investigation" into the activities of former agency employees.

In an interview this week, Smith would not explain why the police were called, or what prompted her to request an outside audit. She said the security system was installed "to protect confidential client files."

"I cannot discuss anything connected to the state police," said Smith, who previously worked as chief counsel for the Baltimore Police Department. "The purpose of all audits is to ensure the office has been using basic and sound accounting principles. I want to be sure I'm doing everything to protect my clients."

When pressed, she said she has "no information that anything has been misappropriated or embezzled."

Several former employees said all these measures are making it look as though they did something wrong, when there has never been an allegation of wrongdoing on their part.

The spate of activity prompted Guthorn to hire lawyer Dale P. Kelberman, who in June wrote to Ehrlich's chief counsel, Jervis S. Finney, to ask for any records or correspondence that would explain why the police were called.

"Because this matter may affect Ms. Guthorn's reputation as an attorney, and her standing with the Public Service Commission, I would respectfully request that you reply to this as soon as possible," Kelberman wrote June 1.

Guthorn said her attorney received a one-page reply, saying communication between Smith and the governor's office was privileged and would therefore not be released.

So what gives?

Smith isn't talking: "I cannot discuss anything about activities here of that nature."

Signature Description

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) has a colorful way of sizing up his political adversaries.

In an interview last week about medical malpractice reforms, Miller complained that Budget Secretary Chip DiPaula Jr. often pulls the governor to the right on issues when a more moderate path would be appropriate.

"He's like Ronald Reagan incarnate in a little teeny body," Miller said of DiPaula.

Asked about the comment, DiPaula said he would frame the remark and seek Miller's signature if it made it into print.

Mr. President, sign here:

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