Lighthizer gets chance to set port's course O'Malley resignation opens door to change

April 21, 1991|By John H. Gormley Jr.

To many in the maritime industry, Brendan W. "Bud" O'Malley's announcement last week that he intends to step down as executive director of the Maryland Port Administration represents troubling evidence of continued instability at the port of Baltimore. To Maryland Transportation Secretary O. James Lighthizer, it represents an opportunity to dramatically transform the port agency and to turn the port around.

The port's recent history has been dominated by turbulence and decline. Mr. Lighthizer said Friday he expects to perpetuate the turbulence in the weeks and months to come.

But out of the ferment he expects to create an organization equal to the task of putting the port back on the road to growth.

Characterizing himself as an agent of change, Mr. Lighthizer said, "That's what I do best. You're going to see change. I absolutely guarantee that."

Mr. O'Malley's departure represents the first of Mr. Lighthizer's initiatives to remake the port agency.

Both Mr. Lighthizer and Mr. O'Malley have said that the port director decided to step down. But Mr. O'Malley's decision was not voluntary, according to a state government official who asked to remain anonymous.

Mr. Lighthizer, who took over as transportation secretary in January, soon decided to replace Mr. O'Malley, according to the official. Another person familiar with the decision confirmed that Mr. O'Malley was asked to leave.

"There's been a consensus for some months by [Mr.] Lighthizer, the governor and leading members of the [Maryland Port] Commission [that] a change ought to be made," the government official said. The commission is the policy-making agency for the port. But, the official explained, Mr. Lighthizer deferred taking action until after the close of the legislature, when he would have more time to devote to the problems of the MPA.

Even Mr. O'Malley's critics would admit that the problems he faced were extremely difficult. He inherited a port with a troubled labor climate and a long string of losses of steamship lines and cargo to the seemingly invincible ports of Hampton Roads, Va. The job was further complicated by the close involvement of the governor in port matters.

Anthony Chiarello, who served as Mr. O'Malley's deputy before leaving the port agency to become assistant vice president for a stevedoring company, defended Mr. O'Malley's performance under difficult circumstances. "Bud did a very good job," Mr. Chiarello said. "No matter who took that position would have had a difficult row to hoe."

In 1989, for the first time in its history, the port agency lost money -- almost $4 million. Mr. O'Malley was not responsible for that one, but he was unable to stem the red tide. The deficit was $1.4 million at the end of his first year and may reach $4 million this year. The agency is projecting another budget deficit for next year of close to $1 million.

The port's cargo base also eroded under Mr. O'Malley. What he refers to as "bookend strikes" last year -- a three-day work stoppage in January and a two-day strike in December -- certainly didn't help cargo volumes or Mr. O'Malley's job security.

When asked what abilities his successor will need to succeed, Mr. O'Malley joked, "A person who walks on water, that would help."

He suspects the port's turnaround may already be under way, though he doesn't expect to receive the credit. Despite a weak national economy, the port's cargo volumes were up substantially for the first two month of the year, he said. (The port agency, which reports cargo statistics on a quarterly basis, has not yet officially released figures for January, February or March.) Exports through the port have been strong, and if the United States emerges from its recession and imports rebound, the port could have a very good year, he predicted.

His proudest achievement during his two years in Baltimore was the opening and operation of Seagirt Marine Terminal, a $250 million high-tech terminal for containerships. Only two lines are currently using Seagirt, but three more lines will begin using it soon.

The labor agreement worked out for Seagirt has produced a productive operation, with the union clerks at the terminal's gate working it "proudly and well," he said.

His greatest disappointments, he said, were the decline in cargo and the deficits. "Despite all the efforts of many, we have not been able to hang onto as much cargo and revenue as I would have liked. I trust my successor will have a better record," he said.

Mr. O'Malley, who will be 55 in June, is eligible for a pension from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, where he worked for more than 28 years before coming to Maryland. Mr. O'Malley said he also expects to continue to reside in Maryland.

"I'm going to go to work for somebody in Maryland or Washington in the transportation industry, the business I've been in for 30 years," he said.

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