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Miller seeks ouster of Maryland's No. 2 transportation official

Maryland Senate president calls for the ouster of a high-ranking state transportation official.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller is calling for the ouster of a high-ranking state transportation official who warned counties that their projects could lose funding because of legislation passed by the General Assembly this year.

In a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn this week, Miller urged that Deputy Secretary James F. Ports Jr. be "relieved of his leadership role in state government" for the "comical display of ineptitude" in his communications with local governments about a new law requiring proposed transportation projects to be scored.

"The citizens of this state deserve employees operating at senior executive levels who actually know what they are talking about and have the ability to deal with other government officials with mutual respect and civility," the Calvert County Democrat wrote this week.

A spokesman for Republican Gov. Larry Hogan fired back.

"Senate President Miller has a long and very colorful history of writing impulsive but always rhetorically enjoyable letters to people he is upset with — we always enjoy reading them," said Hogan spokesman Douglass Mayer. "It is no secret the Senate president and his colleagues are doing everything possible to run away from a horrendous law they championed, but lashing out at a hardworking state employee because he is frustrated is clearly inappropriate."

Miller's message escalates an increasingly bitter struggle between the Democratic-led legislature and Hogan over what the governor has labeled the "road kill bill." In a Saturday speech to the Maryland Association of Counties, Hogan demanded the repeal of what he called "terrible" legislation, saying that it put highway projects across the state in jeopardy.

Ports is the second-ranking official at the Maryland Department of Transportation and previously represented Baltimore County as a Republican in the House of Delegates.

Teri Moss, a department spokeswoman, said Rahn has "complete confidence" in Ports and looks forward to his continued service.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, was out of town and could not be reached to comment.

While the Senate president singled out Ports, Miller's letter was aimed at the entire administration's response to the legislation. Hogan opposed the bill and vetoed it during this year's legislative session. The House and Senate promptly overturned the veto. The law went into effect July 1.

Miller and other Democrats contend that Ports' letters have mischaracterized the new law. According to Miller, Ports "simply started sending snide, false and alarming missives to local officials threatening the funding of requested projects, explicitly contradictory to the law."

The law calls for the Department of Transportation to draw up regulations by Jan. 1. The administration initially interpreted the law to mean projects must be scored in time for completion of its draft Comprehensive Transportation Program on Sept. 1.

In a July 28 letter to local officials, Ports demanded the results of a dozen studies by Aug. 15 so they could be factored into the scores. He warned that if they did not provide the information their projects could be defunded.

Ports followed up with letters to county officials that included the department-assigned scores of local jurisdictions' various projects.

In his letters, Ports informed 20 counties and Baltimore that none of their projects would be funded because the top seven projects would use up all the money. The projects that made the cut were in Prince George's, Montgomery and Howard counties.

The law says that the department has the authority to fund projects that score lower than those given a higher rating as long as it provides an explanation. Ports made no mention of that provision in his letters and told local officials the state "must allocate funding" to the highest-ranking projects.

After the attorney general's office issued an opinion saying that the "better interpretation" of the bill was that the legislature intended the rules to be written first and the scores applied for the first time next year, the administration dropped its insistence on applying the scores this year.

In an Aug. 16 letter, Ports warned counties that the scoring system used this year would be used again next year.

In his letter, Miller accused Ports of throwing "a temper tantrum via mail." He characterized the official's message as saying: "We didn't want to do it, we still don't want to do it, and if you make us do it, we'll do it in the worst way we can think of that will harass and terrify local government."

The Senate president urged Rahn to use the coming months to "draft rational regulations" and seek public comment before putting them into effect. He suggested that if the department sees ways to smooth their implementation, it could propose changes to the law during the 2017 legislative session.

Miller told Rahn that if Ports is not fired, he should be "moved to a position where he does not have responsibility for communicating with local officials."

The governor's office rejected the suggestion.

"The only people who should be worried about their jobs are the lawmakers who publicly supported a law that jeopardizes road projects across the state," Mayer said.

mdresser@baltsun.com

twitter.com/michaeltdresser

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