A public servant lost


Gov. Parris Glendening has taken an idea that has some merit and applied it in precisely the wrong place. He has fired one of the state's ablest career officials -- one with national stature -- simply to shake things up at an agency that doesn't need fixing, the Motor Vehicle Administration.

The governor believes that the agency, headed by W. Marshall Rickert for the past 10 years, needs new leadership. Particularly, he believes diversity is needed in an area of government -- the transportation agencies -- that is headed almost exclusively by white males.

While we agree that diversity in the most senior posts in state governments is a worthy objective, and that chief executives have the right to pick their top aides, we doubt this particular move is in the best interests of the state's motorists. They need only think back to the level of service -- or disservice -- they experienced at the MVA before Mr. Rickert took over. While a visit to MVA headquarters in Glen Burnie still isn't a fun expedition, procedures there are vastly improved.

Remember the annual scramble to renew license plates, all of us at the same time? Now they are good for two years and renewed on a staggered schedule. Remember those easily forged drivers' licenses? The new ones are good for five years, have a digitized photograph that is impossible to replace and are backed with a magnetic stripe. Remember those long lines at major MVA offices? Now there is a network of small express offices that can perform many of the most important services. Behind the scenes are a lot of other improvements, not visible to the visitors' eyes, that have made the agency more efficient and customer friendly. It's still a bureaucracy, but not a bastion of frustration and confusion.

Could a new face improve on all this? Perhaps. But while serving the interests of Maryland motorists well, Mr. Rickert became a national leader in his field. He's the motor vehicle official, in the words of a colleague from another state, who is "the one everyone listens to." Have a problem? Call Marshall. He was a key figure in the development of the national commercial drivers license, which makes it easier for authorities to catch the dangerous truck drivers who managed to get re-licensed in state after state. He is currently the head of the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, a job gained by peer respect, not seniority.

Heads of state agencies serve -- properly -- at the pleasure of the governor. But Mr. Glendening has retained other state officials because they are good at their jobs. So is Mr. Rickert, and Maryland motorists will miss him.

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