Star-Crossed Port Boss

April 20, 1991

Baltimore's port remains in a period of decline and uncertainty. Cargo traffic has dropped substantially while arch-rival Hampton Roads has seen business boom. Labor troubles continue to hang ominously over the docks here. The quarter-billion-dollar Seagirt Marine Terminal has been disappointing. And now the port is searching for a new director for the second time in three years.

Brendan J. O'Malley's tenure as port boss proved star-crossed. The same problems that plagued the port when he arrived in 1989 are still present. Yet he cannot be blamed for the continuing intransigence of Richie Hughes' longshoremen's union or for the economic decisions that led steamship lines to shift activities to other ports.

Mr. O'Malley proved to be the wrong person for the job. Baltimore needed an aggressive and imaginative leader; Mr. O'Malley is soft-spoken and understated. Much of his time was consumed jumping from one crisis situation to another. And as the recession hit the maritime industry, Baltimore's fortunes took another turn for the worse.

The one big achievement of Mr. O'Malley's tenure was the opening of the ultra-modern Seagirt terminal. But two longshoremen's strikes so traumatized steamship lines that the port has been unable to fill Seagirt with the kind of high-volume shippers officials had hoped to lure to Baltimore.

Meanwhile, Mr. O'Malley came under harsh public criticism from his ultimate boss, Gov. William Donald Schaefer. It marked the second straight time that the governor had pressured a port director to leave. The governor, it seems, cannot tolerate low-key officials whose agencies encounter turbulent times.

Transportation Secretary O. James Lighthizer will run the port on a temporary basis. This should give Mr. Lighthizer, who is new to the transportation field, a feel for the port before naming a permanent replacement. He may be tempted to pick a former colleague with a background in government. But the port job also requires an intimate knowledge of the arcane and often incestuous relationships that dominate maritime matters.

Still, Mr. O'Malley's successor may have an easier time of it. The worst of the problems with labor may have passed. The port's loss of cargo seems to be bottoming out. There are indications the Seagirt terminal is starting to draw more trade. And efforts to entice new business to the port may pay off in the months ahead.

What Baltimore's port needs next is stability in its top leadership and a commitment on the state's part to support aggressive steps to increase the volume of cargo shipped through Maryland's major city. The port remains a vital cog in the state's economy. It deserves a director who can revive its fortunes.

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