Boat pilots' dispute moving to a deadline

Parties to negotiate a time frame for an accord, or a full hearing

January 12, 2001|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

Docking pilots, the shipping industry and state officials agreed yesterday to negotiate a time frame for the parties either to reach a settlement or proceed with a full hearing on the pilots' controversial rate increases.

Port business leaders and lawmakers have criticized the docking pilots for increasing their rates by 50 percent just before Oct. 1, when a law that regulated the amount they could charge ship companies took effect.

Yesterday, at the Public Service Commission's first preliminary hearing on the issue, Chief Hearing Examiner Andrew P. Mosier Jr. allowed two parties -the Maryland Port Administration and the Maryland Maritime Association - to join the state inquiry, bringing the total number to five.

The other parties present were the Association of Maryland Docking Pilots, PSC staff counsel and the People's Counsel.

During a hearing recess that lasted 50 minutes, The Sun reporter was excluded from the hearing room as attorneys and representatives of the five parties engaged in negotiations. Mosier also did not sit in on the closed door negotiation.

"Traditionally, settlement negotiations are restricted to the parties," said Mosier. "Whatever they come up with will be reviewed by an examiner."

When the preliminary hearing reconvened, O. Ray Bourland III, attorney for the docking pilots' association, said the parties planned to hold a conference call today to agree "in principle as to how the commission should proceed, in terms of monitoring and regulating the rates of the association."

Bourland also advocated more time - about three months - to accumulate additional data on docking pilot expenses and its impact on the port and shipping companies.

The parties, most of whom expressed concern over avoiding a long and costly legal case, agreed to notify Mosier no later than Jan. 25 of their procedural plans.

Marta D. Harting, attorney for the Maryland Maritime Association, said that association's members -16 steamship agencies and operators - are "the ultimate consumers here and they're the ones who pay the rates."

"They're very concerned about the magnitude [of the rate increase.]"

She said that the parties will have to agree upon a retroactive date for a refund of fees paid to the docking pilots if the examiner finds that the shipping companies are entitled to get the money back.

Bourland said that date should be Nov. 29; Harting did not give a date.

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