Change at Baltimore

Change at Baltimore

Amid the politics surrounding his departure as executive director of the Maryland Port Administration, Brooks F. Royster III kept his sense of humor. "I knew coming in that I served at the pleasure of the governor," he said. "And if there's no pleasure, I no longer serve."

After July 31, Royster no longer will serve. Leaving with three years left on his five-year contract, he'll join a long line of former port directors at Baltimore. His successor will be the MPA's 10th director or acting director in 16 years - and that includes Royster's predecessor, Jim White, who lasted six years.

It's a credit to the Port of Baltimore that it continues to attract qualified people to serve as its executive director. It's unfortunate they must be hired so frequently.

The high turnover is no mystery. Unlike many ports that are independent or semi-autonomous authorities, the MPA is an arm of the state's Department of Trans-portation. The port director is under the transportation secretary, who's under the governor. A new state political administration is usually followed by a change in port directors.

To be fair, most port customers aren't unduly affected by the comings and goings of port directors. Port Everglades went through 20 directors between 1963 and 1991 - the JoC's late Southeastern correspondent, Craig Dunlap, spent much of his career reporting on them - yet the Florida port continued to thrive. And Baltimore just posted its fifth straight year of record cargo volume.

There's a comfort factor, however, in being able to develop a relationship with the person in charge of a port, and execution of long-range plans is much easier when there's stability at the top. It's probably no coincidence that Virginia, Charleston and Savannah, the three busiest container ports on the middle and South Atlantic, have had extremely low turnover in their top management for several decades.

Farther south, the Alabama State Docks used to be a state agency like the MPA. In the 1990s it was converted into a port authority overseen by an independent board. It's probably not entirely a coincidence that the Port of Mobile is seeing an upturn in its fortunes, with construction of a new container terminal, a new steel-handling terminal and other improvements.

Royster's departure from Baltimore has rekindled talk of changes in the port's governing structure. Two years ago, a consultant's report recommended that Maryland run its port more like a business, by easing state restrictions on hiring, spending, procurement and operations. Not much has been done to implement those recommendations, but it's an issue that will come up again, no matter who is selected as Baltimore's next port executive.