Officials lose posts


Agency general manager, administrator replaced

`New leadership' wanted

Moves made to improve morale, Flanagan says

October 30, 2004|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

The Ehrlich administration has ousted the top two officials of the Maryland Transit Administration in a move intended to improve morale at the troubled agency that runs the Baltimore area's bus and commuter rail systems.

State Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan said Robert L. Smith, who was hired late in the Glendening administration, has been removed as the agency's administrator.

And John T. Gowland, a former printing company executive appointed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., has been replaced as the MTA's general manager.

Flanagan declined to characterize the moves as firings but said he wanted "new leadership" at the agency. "It's fair to say that one of our principal goals is to improve morale at the MTA," he said.

He named Lisa Dickerson, an assistant transportation secretary, as acting administrator. Robert Mowry, a 30-year agency employee, will replace Gowland as the No. 2 official.

Flanagan said he has asked Dickerson, 48, to make a "top-to-bottom evaluation" of the agency and to bring him recommendations.

The moves at the MTA are part of a series of top-level personnel moves made in the Department of Transportation this week.

Ehrlich announced yesterday that he has promoted James F. Ports Jr., a Republican former delegate from Baltimore County, from assistant secretary to deputy secretary -- the department's No. 2 post. He replaced Trent Kittleman, who was appointed chief executive of the Maryland Transportation Authority, which runs the state's toll facilities, the previous day.

The Maryland Transit Administration runs the Baltimore area bus, subway and light rail systems as well as the MARC train system and Mobility van and cab service for the disabled. With increasing responsibilities and a tight budget, the agency has had a troubled record in recent years.

Hired in June 2002

Smith, a former Chicago Transit Authority executive, was hired in June 2002 after a nine-month national search in the wake of 18 incidents in which wheels fell off MTA buses in operation. The resulting furor cost acting administrator Virginia L. White her job and made the MTA an issue in the 2002 gubernatorial race.

When Ehrlich took office in January last year, the administration kept Smith on the job, but later that year installed Gowland -- who served on the Ehrlich transition team -- as general manager.

Former MTA employees say Gowland took over the day-to-day operations of the agency, and that Smith was reduced to figurehead status.

Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat who chairs the House subcommittee that oversees the transportation budget, called Smith "a consummate professional who for all intents and purposes was fired over a year ago by the Ehrlich administration and undermined by Gowland."

Flanagan rejected that characterization of the roles of the two officials. "Both gentlemen worked very hard and tried to get the right chemistry at MTA," he said.

Since Gowland's appointment, many of the MTA's veteran professional managers have left or been fired.

The agency has also been sued by the Maryland Disability Law Center over its management of the Mobility program. In July, disability-rights advocates said a new system implemented by the MTA to improve Mobility had left the system in worse condition than ever.

Mobility program

Flanagan said yesterday that the Mobility problems were not the cause of the management shake-up, calling the service "a success story."

"I'm satisfied with the upward trend," he said. "We're at 88 percent [on-time service], and it's never been that high. And we are continuing to implement plans for continued improvement."

But Lauren Young, legal director of the disability law center, questioned that figure. She said that even if it is accurate, 88 percent still falls short of federal rules and the performance standards in the MTA's contracts with its subcontractors.

"They are not in the chaos they were in July, but they still have quite a ways to go," Young said.

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