Port in a storm

February 27, 2005

ASK ANYONE in the shipping industry: James J. White is top drawer. Labor, management, government, it doesn't matter. He's the best thing to happen to the Port of Baltimore in the modern era. Don't take our word for it. That's what the port's longtime guardian, Helen Delich Bentley, thinks, too. "We've never had a better port executive," the Republican former congresswoman said recently. Mr. White's resignation as head of the Maryland Port Administration is a huge blow to Baltimore, to the state's business community and to Maryland's economy.

And here's the worst of it: There's no good reason why Mr. White had to resign. To put it bluntly, he couldn't stand all the interference he received from Maryland Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan. He was particularly aghast at some of the people he's been forced to hire, most of whom had no experience in his industry. No offense to Gregory J. Maddalone, the ice dancer engaged by Mr. Flanagan as the port's legislative liaison, but what's the deal with that? Mr. White probably can't perform a triple lutz, but he knows a heck of a lot more about running a port than Mr. Flanagan.

Mr. Flanagan counters that the administration has introduced only 16 new employees to the MPA since Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. became governor. The agency has a payroll of more than 300. No matter. The only employee who really counts here is Mr. White. His departure has already raised doubts about future expansion plans for one of the port's biggest shippers. E. Lorenzo Di Casagrande of Mediterranean Shipping Co. complained earlier this month of a "complete deterioration in service and professionalism" at the port. That should have set off alarm bells.

The port remains a critical employer in this state. Not just because it accounts for 18,000 jobs but because these are well-paid blue-collar jobs, the kind that are in short supply in Maryland and elsewhere. Mr. Ehrlich should be particularly sensitive to this. He knows GM's Broening Highway plant closes in a matter of weeks. Bethlehem Steel is long gone. The maritime industry is highly competitive. Mr. White's value was in his three decades of experience and personal relationships in an industry that is cool to outsiders. In rival ports from Norfolk to New York, they must be delighted with all the tumult in Baltimore.

The MPA needs a qualified replacement, and it needs one fast. Mr. Flanagan was wise to appoint the redoubtable Mrs. Bentley to head the search. He's promised to reconsider some planned layoffs in the port's marketing department and the closing of at least one of the port's Midwestern offices. He also says the next director will have full responsibility for hiring and firing. But this may be a classic case of closing the barn door a day too late.

Baltimore won't know the full effect of Mr. White's departure for a year or two. But even Mr. Flanagan must recognize that one of the state's most vital economic engines has needlessly been placed in jeopardy. Maryland shouldn't have to pay such a price for the sake of mere cronyism.

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