Some officials score ouster of roads chief They fear governor has opened door to politicizing of job

'This couldn't be worse'

Fired Kassoff called honest

Glendening defends replacement

July 08, 1996|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,SUN STAFF

The Glendening administration's recent decision to fire Hal Kassoff, Maryland's highly regarded highway chief, has sparked concern among Republicans and Democrats alike that the powerful post would now be politicized.

Critics say that the firing of Kassoff -- the state's headstrong but evenhanded highway administrator for the past 12 years -- offers the potential for abuse by Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who in his first 18 months in office has earned a reputation for taking full advantage of political opportunity.

They maintain that Glendening's hand-picked replacement could easily begin to use road projects as bargaining chips for the governor -- to reward supporters, punish dissenters and curry favor with contractors and developers who might respond in kind with campaign contributions.

"As far as a bad personnel move, the governor's made a lot of bad appointments, but this [a political appointee] couldn't be worse," said House Minority Leader Robert H. Kittleman, a Howard County Republican.

But Glendening dismissed the political concerns as "just not true." He pointed out that the state highway administrator serves at the pleasure of the governor and stressed that Kassoff's replacement, Parker F. Williams, has the credentials to run the agency.

Williams, 48, is the chief financial officer of KCI Technologies Inc., a Hunt Valley engineering company, and had been a deputy secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation for 15 years.

Maryland Transportation Secretary David L. Winstead announced Williams' hiring late last month, when he made public Kassoff's firing, citing differences in management styles.

But despite assurances by the administration that there is no political agenda, some officials remain wary of the shake-up.

"There's a tremendous relationship between the State Highway Administration, highway contractors and developers -- it's a tremendous dependence -- and I think Glendening wants to create a closer link between the political side of the house and the SHA," said a Democrat knowledgeable of the governor and the agency.

Kittleman said: "There are a lot of decisions to be made on stoplights and whether a road is built or not, a lot of close calls. I think those decisions now will be steered in a political way, that political considerations will override the technical judgments of what is proper, as far as the road system goes."

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., a Democrat from Allegany County, registered similar concerns, though couched them more cautiously.

Taylor said that anytime leadership changes at the transportation department, officials fear that the state highway system "could become politicized at the expense of the taxpayers."

"On the other hand, if Mr. Kassoff's successor has the ability and the freedom to bridge the gap, we will continue protecting one of the best highway systems on the East Coast of the United States," he said.

Some state officials said the administration's action is as much politics as it is "bad blood." They maintain that the governor never cared for Kassoff -- a dislike that stemmed from feuds between the two men dating to Glendening's tenure as Prince George's County executive.

"Secretary Winstead indicated to me that Governor Glendening had not been pleased with Mr. Kassoff's performance when he was county executive," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a Prince George's County Democrat. "They apparently had major disagreements at that time."

Kassoff, 53, who was appointed by Gov. Harry R. Hughes and survived eight years under Gov. William Donald Schaefer, is respected by colleagues and elected officials. He often is described as "strong-willed" and "highly ethical."

An engineer who worked for the State Highway Administration for 25 years, Kassoff has remained mute on his firing, which becomes effective next month, after he assists with Williams' transition. He did not return a reporter's phone calls last week.

In terms of the governor's appointments, the state highway administrator's job is a key one, nearly on par with Cabinet-level posts.

Kassoff, who is paid $106,664 annually, heads one of the largest agencies in state government; in fact, the largest within the Maryland Department of Transportation. He controls a budget that exceeds $1.1 billion -- including $586 million for new state highway construction projects this year -- and oversees nearly 4,000 employees.

Glendening seemed eager not to discuss the matter in a brief interview last week.

He waved off charges that Kassoff's firing presented him with the opportunity to use highway projects as political payoffs or as a possible way to elicit campaign contributions.

"Every governor is entitled to pick people he wants," Glendening said. "Beyond that, you'll have to talk to Secretary Winstead."

"I'm only interested in performance," the governor said.

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