Independent port authority urged for Baltimore

Governor's aide says idea is not `on the table'

March 03, 2005|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

Three decades ago, the port of Baltimore was run as essentially a money-making business, mostly independent of the state bureaucracy. And that, say some in the maritime community, is the way it should be again.

In the week since James J. White resigned as executive director of the Maryland Port Administration, noting clashes with Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan, some port businesses and local leaders have discussed the potential for creating a port authority that would have its own budget, funding mechanism and bonding power.

The idea is not actively being pursued by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration or by the legislature. Shareese N. DeLeaver, a spokeswoman for Ehrlich, said yesterday that she doesn't think creating an independent agency is "an idea on the table at this point."

But former congresswoman and port consultant Helen Delich Bentley, who is heading the search committee for White's replacement, said she supports independence for the port.

"I'm talking about having the port as some kind of individual agency that doesn't have to abide by the very long procedures of awarding contracts," she said.

"What has to be done now is out of this world, anything but fast business," Bentley said. "A director also needs to have his own say on personnel, have bonding power and some funding."

Bentley said there isn't time to wait for that to happen. White will leave the MPA any day, and Flanagan has requested that the search committee report a list of candidates by April 15.

White said yesterday that independence is "essential" for the next director. He noted that most state ports are run by independent authorities.

"If I'm here or not, it's more business-friendly" to have an independent authority, he said. "You can respond to businesses more aggressively than you can today."

Baltimore Maritime Exchange Director David Stambaugh called it, "a concept worth revisiting."

Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr., an Anne Arundel County Democrat who chairs a subcommittee that oversees the port, said another solution might include moving the port administration to the Department of Business and Economic Development, which also has heavy marketing and job-creation elements.

The Department of Transportation has commissioned a study of the direction the port should take. It will examine other ports of similar size and will be ready by late spring, a department spokeswoman said.

DeLeaver declined to discuss alternatives to the current port structure, saying, "The attention and focus now turns to the work of the search committee for a new executive director to lead the port into the future. The administration believes this course of action is in the best interest of the port, maritime industry and Maryland citizens."

White, who was appointed by Ehrlich's Democratic predecessor, Parris N. Glendening, in 1999, has won kudos for his work from shippers, customers and longshoremen but said he failed to win the respect of Flanagan, who became his boss about two years ago with the Republican governor's election.

In the weeks before White said he would leave, some customers of the port began complaining in letters to White, administration officials and lawmakers that White was being undermined in decision-making on matters including marketing expenditures and hiring of key personnel.

One lawmaker said yesterday that remaking the port leadership as a port authority would not solve the problem of political interference because the authority would still have to answer to the governor.

Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat who leads the subcommittee on the House side that oversees the port's budget, said keeping White would be the best thing for the state.

"I'd be very surprised if he were able to continue to work for this state under that administration," Franchot said. "So to separate the port out from the Department of Transportation does nothing to resolve the problem."

Bentley, well-known in the global maritime industry, said she has been contacted by 10 to 15 people about the executive director's job but that none is a viable candidate. A meeting is planned for today with other search committee members to set a plan to pursue someone of White's caliber.

Some in the maritime community say White will be difficult to replace regardless of the port's structure and that more effort should have been made to keep him.

"You've got a player like Johnny Unitas on your team, he goes to another team, he has the respect of the whole league, and all he can do is hurt you," said Tom Matte, a former Baltimore Colt who is a senior vice resident at ATC Logistics of Maryland, which leases space from the port for auto imports and exports. "It's a shame that these differences can't be worked out so the port would win and the state would win."

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