Ehrlich says port chief got ultimatum

White could get along with Flanagan or go, according to governor

February 27, 2005|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Last week's resignation of the well-regarded director of the port of Baltimore came after Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. told the port chief to reconcile differences with the head of the state's Transportation Department or leave, the governor said yesterday.

In his most extensive comments since James J. White resigned Thursday, Ehrlich said he had been aware of two years' worth of festering disagreements between Secretary of Transportation Robert L. Flanagan and White, the port chief promoted by former Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

"There's been clear philosophical differences between my secretary, Bob Flanagan, and, obviously, Mr. White, since Day One," Ehrlich said, speaking on Stateline With Governor Ehrlich on WBAL Radio.

"Quite frankly, a couple of weeks ago ... I told everyone, and certainly Jim knows: Either stay and work it out, or leave. A or B," Ehrlich said. "He has obviously indicated a desire to leave. He has done a good job, nothing negative about him. But I am going to support my secretary, obviously, Bob Flanagan."

Ehrlich said he sided with Flanagan, a member of the governor's Cabinet, over disagreements about how money should be spent on promotion and capital improvements, but did not go into detail about the disagreements.

In an interview yesterday, White said he did not hear the radio show, but he said Ehrlich's quotes from the program did not completely match his recollection of events.

"Nobody's ever said to me, `Work it out or leave.' I don't know where that came from," White said.

He said he agreed with Ehrlich's point that White and Flanagan have disagreed on port operations.

"We just have major differences on how the port is run and the people that should be running it," White said, adding that "the governor is going to support his secretary of transportation. Actually, I admire him for doing that."

Two weeks ago, at a meeting of the state Board of Public Works, Ehrlich said that White's job was not in jeopardy, and that the governor was not considering seeking a replacement.

Industry view

The governor's account yesterday differs sharply from that offered by labor leaders and some large port customers, who say White was driven out because his authority was undermined by high-level Ehrlich appointees with little or no experience in maritime operations.

The Sun reported last week that Mediterranean Shipping Company Inc., one of the largest lines at the port, is considering scaling back its business because of what a company vice president called the "political incompetence" of Ehrlich administration officials.

Capt. E. Lorenzo Di Casagrande wrote to attorney and Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos, a friend, that Flanagan is jeopardizing business relationships by replacing seasoned workers with people who don't have "the slightest idea of the shipping industry."

One of the workers is former Ehrlich congressional staff member Gregory J. Maddalone, whose prior experience is as a professional figure skater. Maddalone, 29, has been assigned to several agencies since Ehrlich's election, and legislative critics say he is part of a roving group of Ehrlich loyalists who report to the governor's office outside the typical agency chain of command and compile lists of employees to be fired.

The port is considered a major economic engine for Baltimore and the region, generating $216.2 million in state and local taxes and $1.47 billion in business revenue in 2002, according to Martin Associates of Lancaster, Pa. The port directly employs 15,740 people, the company said, with potentially thousands of related jobs relying on it.

Del. Brian K. McHale, a Baltimore Democrat and port employee, called in to the radio show to challenge the governor's version and to say that Ehrlich needs to change the perception that the port is in decline.

McHale said he has received unsolicited calls from port customers, asking why Flanagan was "meddling" in productive labor and management relationships that had been patched since rough periods decades ago.

"Just like in politics, perception becomes reality, and I think we are in a phase of damage control because of some of the appointments that have been made at the Maryland Port Administration," McHale said. "No one has seen the level of incompetence that has been brought."

`Give me a break'

Ehrlich denied the charge, asserting that Glendening "got rid of 15 people during his first two years; we've gotten rid of three. ... Give me a break."

Ehrlich said White had his detractors who "have made me aware of their opinions. But that has not cost him his job."

The governor said that "some really great, serious people" were interested in the job, but he was not ready to name a replacement.

Former Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, a longtime port advocate who was Ehrlich's predecessor representing Baltimore County in Congress, is leading the search. Yesterday, she said White "has done one of the greatest jobs this port has had."

In the wake of White's resignation, state Sen. Ulysses Currie, Democratic chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, has said he will conduct hearings in coming weeks about operations at the port, including personnel issues.

"We are not just sitting on our hands," said Currie, whose committee oversees the port budget and who expects to hear from Flanagan, the former port director, private businesses and legislative budget analysts.

Sun staff writer Arthur Hirsch and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

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