There were private grumbling, State House hearings and a proposed bill to cut some of the port's ties to the administration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. but no consensus.
Now, a recently completed report commissioned by the state, at a cost of $300,000, offers advice on running the port more like a business and less like a state agency. Port and government officials will mull it over this summer.
The report, conducted by New York-based Mercer Management Consulting, doesn't advocate the sort of extensive change, such as making the port independent of the Maryland Department of Transportation, that some lawmakers proposed. But it does call for giving port executives more power over day-to-day operations and easing state rules on hiring and spending.
"We have something to put our arms around," said Helen Delich Bentley, former congresswoman and a port adviser. "One thing is clear: We need to make some changes so the port has some autonomy."
The report is getting attention as a new executive director prepares to take the helm of the Maryland Port Administration today. F. Brooks Royster III, a former port of Miami official, takes over for James J. White, who headed the port for six years until resigning amid what he called meddling in hiring and spending matters by his bosses in the Department of Transportation.
The departure angered Democratic legislators who oversee the state's maritime interests and some port customers, who wrote letters and e-mail to state officials that they feared the business and stability White brought would dissolve.
Facing much of the criticism was Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan, appointed more than two years ago by Ehrlich, the first Maryland Republican governor in 36 years. Flanagan said last week that he was obligated to question possible overspending on such things as $200 pens and tickets to sporting events, and that Ehrlich had a prerogative to appoint people to work there.
He said lawmakers should not move too hastily to give the port exemptions from state rules aimed at protecting taxpayer money.
The report is dated May 17, but work began on it last year, before the public dust-up between Flanagan and White.
Its authors said their recommendations were not influenced by the clash but are timely because of it.
"We were very explicit in the report that we believe things need to be changed," said Mark Kader, a Mercer director who wrote the report along with Manny Hontoria, a Mercer principal. "They are not some nice-to-haves."
Kader said they would have made the same recommendations whether the White and Flanagan disagreement had happened or not.
Other ports face similar political and structural problems and are dealing with them.
"What will happen if nothing is changed is Baltimore's competitive position will continue to become more difficult," Kader said. "It will hurt business and if it hurts business, you can figure out the side effects."
For his part, Flanagan said he opposes port independence but not to loosening some rules. He said he would rely heavily on the advice of Royster, the new port director, who said he would immediately start talks with port interests.