Cuts for port raise alarm

John Deere criticizes plan to close 2 Midwest offices

E-mail calls move `grave error'

Some worry director of agency could be let go

February 12, 2005|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

A decision by the Ehrlich administration to close two Midwest sales offices for the Maryland Port Administration has bruised relations with one of the agency's largest customers, prompting a company manager to call the move an "extremely grave error."

In an e-mail obtained by The Sun, John Deere & Co.'s chief liaison with the port of Baltimore told state transportation officials that the plan to close the Detroit and Chicago offices and lay off two veteran marketing representatives by July could affect relations with the company.

"This decision to eliminate these positions could only have been made by someone who is TOTALLY CLUELESS as to their worth to the State of Maryland and the Port of Baltimore," John Deere's Craig P. Peterson wrote Jan. 28.

The message comes amid signs of turmoil on the waterfront and tensions between port officials and higher-ups in the administration.

This week, three Baltimore County legislators wrote Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. expressing concern that James J. White, the widely admired executive director of the port, is in danger of being forced out.

The letter to Ehrlich is an attempt by Dels. John S. Arnick, Joseph J. "Sonny" Minnick and Michael H. Weir Jr. to head off any attempt to replace White, who has seen significant increases in the port's business during his six years in charge.

"We are greatly concerned with this situation and urge that all efforts be made to retain this very valuable asset," said the lawmakers, conservative Democrats who represent a waterfront district in the Dundalk area.

Maryland Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan denied yesterday that White is on his way out. "We are supportive of the port director, and we appreciate his work," Flanagan said.

Henry Fawell, a spokesman for Ehrlich, also said there are no plans to remove White. "The governor has been impressed in every meeting they've had together," Fawell said.

Minnick said that's not what he and his fellow lawmakers have been hearing on the waterfront. He pointed to cuts in Ehrlich's budget that fell harder on the port administration than on other transportation agencies.

"They're eliminating a lot of people on the sales force for the port - especially that Midwestern sector we get a lot of business from," said Minnick. "If it was Jim White's decision, it wouldn't be happening," he added, referring to the Ehrlich administration's decision to close the Chicago and Detroit offices.

Darlene Frank, a port administration spokeswoman, said the two employees who head those offices will retire. The decision to terminate them prompted the blistering response from Peterson.

Peterson declined to comment yesterday on his e-mail. Ken Golden, a spokesman for the Moline, Ill.-based agricultural machinery company, said the e-mail was meant as "a private message of concern" and not as a public statement.

Peterson received replies from at least two Maryland officials - White and Deputy Transportation Secretary James F. Ports Jr. - according to copies of the e-mails obtained by The Sun.

White told Peterson, "I cannot take exception to your correspondence." Without defending the layoffs, he went on to promise that "this port will not let John Deere down." White was unavailable for comment yesterday.

Ports wrote that he hoped Peterson would not "make business decisions based on your relationships with one or two employees." He said Maryland officials appreciate John Deere's business but had to make cuts to balance the state budget. "I would assume that sometime in John Deere's history as a major corporation you too have had to go through similar exercises for budgetary reasons," Ports wrote.

In the governor's budget, 11 of 16 jobs eliminated in the Department of Transportation were in the port administration. Eight of the 11 positions were filled. Those eight employees, four of them in marketing, will be laid off.

Flanagan said it would be wrong to infer from budget decisions that the port administration was out of favor. He said the cuts were made in consultation with port officials and that they had a voice in deciding which positions would be abolished.

He acknowledged that the port administration was not pleased about the reductions. "All organizations resist almost any cut," he said.

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