Port's director steps down

White helped reverse Baltimore's trade loss

`It's just not working'

Ehrlich appointments in department at issue

February 25, 2005|By Meredith Cohn, Michael Dresser and Andrew A. Green | Meredith Cohn, Michael Dresser and Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

The director of the port of Baltimore resigned yesterday, realizing the fears of Maryland shipping interests and lawmakers who had in recent days angrily decried what they described as political interference with port management.

"It's just not working, so the best thing to do is just get out of the way and allow them to put somebody in here they're more comfortable with," James J. White said after he informed his staff. "I feel very sad, but like a large weight has been lifted off my back."

White's decision stunned people familiar with the business of the port, from the state capital to the city's industrial waterfront. After the port had struggled through a revolving door of directors during the late 1980s and 1990s - seven in eight years - White, 55, had represented stability. He helped stanch the loss of trade to other East Coast ports by bringing in customers and signing them to long-term contracts.

The recent turn of events at the port is part of a larger story that has enveloped Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration over the replacement of top-ranking political appointees and professional staff. Since Ehrlich took office more than two years ago, midlevel officials at agencies including the Public Service Commission, the Department of Business and Economic Development, and the Maryland Transit Administration have been replaced by the state's first Republican governor in more than three decades.

But the pressure at the port had elicited especially sharp concerns from shipping interests, lawmakers and state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, usually an Ehrlich supporter. They feared the loss of a skilled port executive just as Baltimore's port has improved against stiff competition from Norfolk, Va.; New York; and elsewhere.

`Some ... friction'

White called a meeting at 11:30 a.m. yesterday to inform his directors and others that he had resigned, a port spokeswoman said. He also said he had been approached by others in the maritime industry and planned to pursue the opportunities.

White was a Maryland Port Administration executive since 1993 and was named executive director in 1999 by former Democratic Gov. Parris N. Glendening. He declined the job initially, saying he feared the potential politics involved.

In an unusually frank assessment Wednesday, the night before he announced his decision, White didn't let on thoughts about leaving, but he described his relationship with Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan as strained. He said then that he hoped to keep his job but acknowledged that he had failed to earn the secretary's respect.

Flanagan, however, said he tried to dissuade White from leaving during a face-to-face conversation yesterday morning. He also said Ehrlich was disappointed at the resignation.

"I asked Jim if there were any circumstances under which he would be willing to stay, and he indicated there were not," said Flanagan, although he acknowledged "some amount of friction" with White during his tenure.

"He has agreed to work with us to ensure a smooth transition, and we're basically negotiating what that would be at this time."

Flanagan said he's tapped former Maryland representative and port consultant Helen Delich Bentley to lead a nationwide search committee to replace White.

Bentley is expected to report a short list to Flanagan by April 15. In a statement released by Flanagan's office, Bentley called White "the best executive director the port of Baltimore has ever had. In his six years here, he has accomplished more than any other East Coast port director. He has put Baltimore on the international maritime map."

White earned $174,000 and still is negotiating a "separation" agreement. He said he had 40 voice messages from well-wishers and had been approached by other employers, which he declined to identify. The Bel Air resident said he hopes to remain in Maryland.

Peter M. Tirschwell, editorial director for The Journal of Commerce, a business publication, said that White would be qualified for a number of openings and that the port of Baltimore would have to find a seasoned maritime professional to take his place.

"The port community has its own particular needs, and they tend to like continuity," Tirschwell said. "It's not surprising that there would have been complaints from big shippers about interfering in port operations. It's a business not generally understood by a person on the street."

Schaefer, who had sought assurances from Ehrlich that he would keep the director, said the port is going to lose.

"White will go somewhere else, and the next thing you know, he'll be taking business away from the port of Baltimore because of his high qualifications," the former governor and Baltimore mayor said.

Schaefer said he suspected White was pushed out. He said the governor should not accept the resignation and should give White the authority to run the port and hire deputies as he sees fit.


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