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White returns as port chief

The Baltimore Sun

James J. White, who left the port of Baltimore two years ago after a public battle for control with his former bosses in the Republican Ehrlich administration, will return to lead the state-owned terminals this summer.

Yesterday's announcement was expected by some members of the port community, who had flooded new Democratic O'Malley administration officials with calls to bring back the executive director.

White, 57, had joined a private sector maritime firm in New Jersey but maintained his home in the region. On Aug. 1, he'll replace F. Brooks Royster III, who will leave with about three years remaining in of his five-year contract.

The port community generally praised Royster for bringing calm to the Helen Delich Bentley Port of Baltimore after White's flap with former Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan over personnel and budget issues.

The episode hurt the port's image in the international maritime community and threatened to bring back the instability it suffered in the years before White's first stint - seven directors in eight years.

"One important thing is stability, a return to long-term professional, stable leadership," said Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari. "Jim, having worked his way up the ranks in the port of Baltimore, knows all aspects of the business and all the business people."

White, who ran the port for six years, was known for signing long-term contracts with customers who often preferred to move operations when terminals grew crowded or expensive. He said yesterday that similar contracts would be a priority.

Other costly demands of the port may have to wait, White said, such as land for expansion and a deeper berth at Seagirt Marine Terminal that could accommodate the largest ships.

State and maritime officials say they expect White to continue honing a strategic plan that called on the port, a day's trip up the Chesapeake Bay, to focus on cargo that doesn't come in metal containers, which increasingly go to ports directly on the ocean. The port is now a leading handler of cars, farm and construction equipment and paper.

Despite the business acumen required of a port chief, the position is a political appointment. Royster had been chief executive of the company that runs the largest terminal operation at the Florida port of Miami-Dade and he was selected by a search committee. But when the new administration arrived in Annapolis this January, changes were expected.

Porcari announced two weeks ago that Royster would leave. Royster said at the time that he did not want to go but noted his status as an appointee. He is looking for another job in the region.

Yesterday, Royster said through a spokesman that he was happy for White and pleased the former director would bring some "familiarity."

Royster was paid $225,000 a year, up from the $174,000 White earned when he last held the job. Porcari declined yesterday to say how much public money Royster will be paid to leave or how much White will get to return, saying he first wanted to notify state lawmakers. The amounts will be made public at a July 10 meeting of the Maryland Port Commission, a board that helps oversee port spending and hiring.

Unlike Royster, White won't have a contract. Porcari said White will have broad authority to run day-to-day port operations, but major financial decisions will be made in concert with the secretary's office.

The collaboration will be a familiar one - White worked for Porcari during the Glendening administration and was promoted by him.

The O'Malley administration has brought back several other officials from the era, though Porcari did indicate that he plans to keep Timothy L. Campbell, appointed by Ehrlich in 2005 to run Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. The director Campbell replaced, Paul J. Wiedefeld, was recently named to run the Maryland Transit Administration.

White said he hoped to stay until his retirement and stop the revolving door at the port. But he said that he thought his recent private-sector experience would serve the state well because the port is a business.

"I think there are a lot of solid people with proven track records returning to government," he said.

White said he decided to forgo his higher private-sector paycheck and again face a public bureaucracy because the director position was "the best job I ever had." It also will allow him to spend more time with his family. His position as senior vice president and chief operating officer of the Weehawken, N.J.-based stevedoring and terminal operating company Ceres Terminals Inc. had him traveling 70 percent of the time.

But not everyone in Baltimore agrees that White's return is all good.

George "Bud" Nixon Jr., chairman of a group of private port businesses, said he likes both Royster and White and views them as talented leaders. But he said the international maritime community values longevity and consistency. Another change will not go over well with it, and further, the cash-strapped state will have to pay both directors their salaries for a time.

"There is more than one way to look at this," said Nixon, who served on the search committee that identified Royster. "We released a guy two years ago and hired a new guy. Now we've released that guy and rehired a guy we fired. It looks strange. The port is a business and we can't afford to bounce guys every year or two or three."

However, others said White never should have left. Capt. Lorenzo Di Casagrande, vice president of Mediterranean Shipping Co., the port's largest container carrier, was among those who called Porcari and encouraged him to rehire White.

"He's very good for the port and for the state," Di Casagrande said. "He is a knowledgeable man. He knows the industry upside down. He's easy for people to communicate with because he speaks the same language. He's not an easy negotiator, but a reliable negotiator."

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