Beverly K. Swaim-Staley announced in April that she would be leaving her post as Maryland's secretary of transportation. Nearly eight months later, Gov. Martin O'Malley has yet to name a replacement for one of the most important positions in state government.

The delay is a growing concern, transportation advocates and lawmakers say. Longtime observers of Maryland government can't recall a time when a governor has left such a critical Cabinet post open for so long.

"It isn't as though Beverly didn't give adequate notice," said Lon Anderson, government affairs director for AAA Mid-Atlantic. "I can't remember a vacancy going this long, and I'm hard-pressed to explain it."

Maryland's transportation secretary oversees an agency with an annual budget of more than $3.7 billion. Unlike most states, Maryland groups all transportation functions — highways, mass transit, airports, ports, toll facilities and motor vehicle regulations — under a single department headed by a secretary who reports directly to the governor.

O'Malley spokeswoman Raquel Guillory said the administration is continuing to interview candidates as part of a nationwide search. She said the job's importance is part of the reason that filling it is taking so long.

"This is one of the most important Cabinet positions, if not the most. There's a lot on the agenda for whoever takes over the role," Guillory said. "We have to find the person who's going to be the right fit."

The vacancy remains at a time when transportation funding is expected to be a top issue facing the General Assembly, which begins its annual 90-day session Jan. 9.

Jim Dinegar, president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, said the business group is concerned about the prolonged vacancy and recently wrote to O'Malley.

The delay "is sort of saying it's not an important position, and it is an important position," Dinegar said. He said he received a reply and now understands that the administration has narrowed its list of candidates to about eight — some in-state, some national.

"I think they'll have somebody on board by the end of February by the latest," Dinegar said. "It would be good to have someone on board for the legislative session."

Swaim-Staley left the $163,328-a-year post in late July after working part time her final month. Since then, the department has been run by acting Secretary Darrell Mobley, who had been deputy secretary. Annapolis veterans say an acting secretary does not wield the same authority as someone who has been nominated by the governor for the top spot.

"Unfortunately, titles matter in our society," Anderson said. "There is an enormous gulf between secretary and acting secretary."

Former state Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan, a Republican who served from 2003 to 2007 under Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., agreed.

"It's important that the governor identify someone he has full confidence in and that person be enabled to exercise the full powers of the secretary," Flanagan said.

Swaim-Staley left after serving 31/2 years as secretary. She announced her departure shortly after a push by O'Malley to raise taxes on gasoline to pay for a backlog of deferred transportation projects failed in the General Assembly.

For much of the fall, much of O'Malley's schedule was taken up with political activity as he carried out his roles as a top surrogate for President Barack Obama's re-election campaign and chairman of the Democratic Governors Association.

Dinegar said it wasn't necessarily a bad idea to put off a choice until after the election. Had Obama lost, Dinegar said, many talented officials would have been looking for jobs, possibly including John Porcari, who served as O'Malley's transportation chief for two years until Obama made him deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The governor could be facing some hurdles in recruiting a top-notch candidate. Whoever takes the post has no assurance of an infusion of new state funds to accomplish important projects. And O'Malley cannot guarantee a job for more than two years because his administration ends in January 2015.

"It's tougher every month that goes by and the time slot shortens," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of the environmental group 1,000 Friends of Maryland, which monitors transportation policy.

Flanagan said he doubts that the revenue questions or possible two-year time frame would deter a qualified person from taking what he called "a great job."

"It's a wonderful opportunity as long as you have a governor that you respect and who respects you," he said. "It's an opportunity to do a lot of great things for the people of Maryland."

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

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