In the shipping business, stability is everything. And news of the second change in two years at the top of Maryland Port Administration has some port customers nervous.
Brendan "Bud" O'Malley, executive director of the state's port agency, will leave the $105,000-a-year post sometime next month, said O. James Lighthizer, Maryland's secretary of transportation.
Lighthizer said he would assume the duties of the job temporarily, serving as head of both the Transportation Department and the port agency. He said he hoped that would calm the industry by demonstrating concern for the port at the highest levels of state government.
But some port users said the turnover, though growing more common in the industry, will hamper Baltimore in its effort to reverse an image of instability. O'Malley took over the job May 15, 1989, from a man who had held the job for about three years.
"It's never nice to see people coming and going in any organization. A long-term commitment should be made," said Lorenzo DiCasagrande, the local head of the Containership Agency, which represents several important ship lines.
William Chan, Baltimore representative for Evergreen, a major ship line at the port, said, "It's giving the impression that the port hasn't settled down to business as usual. Any top people moving in short-term gives the impression the port is not steady. It is not a good sign."
A survey by the American Association of Port Authorities shows such turnover is becoming a worrisome trend in the industry. Last year, 16 of the nation's 86 major ports experienced a change of top directors. That 19 percent turnover rate compares with seven percent in 1980. The average tenure of top port executives has declined from a little more than seven years in 1984 to about five years in 1990.
Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, R-2nd, a long-time booster of the port, said, "Baltimore has had four changes in a relatively short period of time, and past experience has indicated that does not bode well."
Lighthizer said O'Malley told him Monday he wanted to leave the job because he would soon be eligible to draw a pension from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. O'Malley, 54, spent 25 years with that agency, rising to assistant port director before he left in 1989 to head the Baltimore port operation.
"I would probably do the same thing," Lighthizer said. "He also said he had been here for two years and had accomplished some of what he wanted to."
"I'm going up there personally the day he leaves and stay involved for whatever time it takes to get a feel for the port's problems and to find the type of individual it takes to run it," Lighthizer said.
Yesterday, O'Malley first steadfastly denied he was leaving, then issued a statement saying he was. He said he will turn 55 in June and the New York pension will afford him the opportunity to "pursue activities in the private sector."
"I leave the MPA with a sense of tangible accomplishment," O'Malley said in the statement. He pointed to the opening of the Seagirt Marine Terminal last fall, the growth in the amount of forest products moving through the port, and "improved communication with labor."
Lighthizer became transportation secretary on Jan. 1, a post that also chairmanship of the policy-setting Maryland Port Commission. There had been speculation ever since he took office that Lighthizer would replace some Department of Transportation executives, but he denied urging O'Malley to leave.
"Under Bud's leadership the port has made some progress in a number of areas," Lighthizer said. "He just came in and resigned."
O'Malley inherited an organization that had been steadily losing cargo to competing ports for years. And the Port Administration, a longtime money-maker for the state, slipped into the red for the first time in its history in fiscal 1989.
Despite some signs of better business in the early months of this year, both cargo loss and operating deficits have continued under O'Malley's tenure.
In 1989, the port handled 5.8 million tons of general cargo and posted an operating deficit of $1.4 million in the fiscal year ending June 30, 1990. That compares with a cargo total of 5.9 million in 1988 and an operating deficit of $3.96 million in fiscal 1989.
The port ended last year with 5.1 million tons of general cargo and expects to show a loss of more than $3 million in the fiscal year ending June 30.
"He will be remembered as the guy who came into town when there were a lot of problems and he leaves with some of them solved," DiCasagrande said.
Chan said, "He's a good man. He did a good job under the difficult circumstances. We didn't achieve too much but we are making progress."
Asked how the O'Malley years are likely to be remembered at the port, Bentley said, "We had a resurgence in recent months and I hope that's how it will be remembered. I hope it will continue."