Md. site focus of visit to Detroit

Ehrlich to lead Md. group in talks with GM officials on Broening Highway plant

`A continuation of the dialogue'

O'Malley, Ruppersberger and Mikulski among those making day trip Monday

November 29, 2003|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. will lead a bipartisan team that includes Mayor Martin O'Malley to Detroit on Monday for talks with General Motors executives about the future of the automaker's endangered Broening Highway plant.

Greg Massoni, the governor's press secretary, described the trip yesterday as "a fact-finding mission to see the future of GM in the state of Maryland."

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, both Democrats, and state Business and Economic Development Secretary Aris Melissaratos will also join the effort to preserve the 68-year-old plant and its 1,100 jobs.

The future of the Broening Highway plant became more uncertain after the most recent contract between GM and the United Auto Workers union permitted its closure.

General Motors has promised to keep the plant open through summer 2005, but its future beyond that is cloudy.

Ehrlich and the other officials are expected to talk to GM executives about what kinds of incentives might keep the plant open, according to an aide to one of the officials.

The Maryland group will leave Baltimore-Washington International Airport on the same commercial airline flight Monday morning and return together late that afternoon. The officials are expected to hold a news conference at the airport upon their return.

The joint effort of political rivals Ehrlich and O'Malley to preserve the plant means the two men will be toning down - at least temporarily - their spat over the governor's unilateral appointment of Floyd R. Blair as head of the city's Department of Social Services.

The fight over Blair, whom the mayor has called unqualified, prompted the Democratic mayor to sue the Republican governor Monday, contending that the appointment violated state law.

Massoni said Ehrlich welcomes the mayor's participation - with a caveat.

"The governor has absolutely no problem with him coming on. It's a Team Maryland concept. As long as they follow the leader of the team - and that's Governor Ehrlich," Massoni said.

The press aide said that original plans for the trip called for Ehrlich and Melissaratos to go, but that Mikulski asked to be included.

"Since then it's been a kind of piling on of people who want to be seen in the group," Massoni said.

Liz Poston, a spokeswoman for Mikulski, said the senator wanted to go because she has a long relationship with the management of GM. Poston said the senator wanted to discuss "all the possibilities" with executives.

"It's all about keeping the automotive jobs in Baltimore," Poston said. "There's not an expectation that they're going to walk out of this meeting with a specific deal or specific agreement."

Poston said that Mikulski has been holding talks with GM officials about the plant's future for months and that the senator met with Guy D. Briggs, GM's vice president of manufacturing, a couple of weeks ago.

Dan Flores, a GM spokesman, said Briggs will meet with the Maryland group at noon Monday at the company's technology center outside Detroit in Warren, Mich.

Flores said he believes that Monday's meeting will be the company's first with Ehrlich.

"We have met regularly with officials from the state of Maryland for several years. What this is, is a continuation of the dialogue about the facility on Broening Highway," he said. "This is a meeting the Maryland officials asked for."

Flores said the company has no definite plans for the facility after 2005.

GM makes Chevrolet Astro and GMC Safari vans at the plant, but sales of those models have been declining. Meanwhile, the company has been offering incentives to workers to relocate to other plants.

Last year, GM opened an Allison transmission plant in White Marsh that absorbed some of the excess employees from Broening Highway. Massoni said the Allison plant would also be a subject of Monday's talks.

The trip to Detroit could give Ehrlich and O'Malley an opportunity to try to resolve differences about other issues, including the debate over Blair's appointment.

Jervis S. Finney, the governor's counsel, said yesterday that he had received an indirect overture from a representative of the mayor to resolve the matter. However, he said, there were no negotiations taking place on settling the lawsuit, which he called "misguided, as well as unfair."

Rick Abbruzzese, a spokesman for O'Malley, denied that the mayor was suing to achieve peace. "To my knowledge, the mayor has made no overt or indirect gesture to reach out to the governor, but has always said that he is more interested in finding an experienced and qualified candidate for [the Department of Social Services] rather than going to court," he said. He also said the governor's office has not contacted the mayor regarding the dispute.

Abbruzzese said he does not believe that the two will discuss the matter on the plane - "unless the governor is going to switch seats," because the mayor will be in coach with Ruppersberger and Mikulski, while Ehrlich will be in first class.

Massoni said that he did not know what the seating arrangements were, but that Ehrlich had flown coach on previous trips. The spokesman said that if the mayor wants to talk with the governor on the Blair issue or other matters, all he has to do is pick up the phone.

"He doesn't need to hop a flight to Detroit to do that," Massoni said.

Sun staff writers Doug Donovan and Jamie Smith Hopkins contributed to this article.

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