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

Ports dis­plays ‘in­ep­ti­tude,’ Se­nate pres­i­dent says; Gov­er­nor Ho­gan dis­agrees

Baltimore Sun - - NEWS - By Michael Dresser mdresser@balt­sun.com twit­ter.com/michaelt­dresser

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 de­part­men­tas­signed 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 high­es­trank­ing 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.

KIM HAIRSTON/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

Sali­cia Out­ten of Wash­ing­ton, cen­ter, helps daugh­ter Ayanna Out­ten, left, un­pack with help from DeMarko Tay­lor, Ayanna’s cousin, on move-in day Wed­nes­day at Goucher Col­lege. Ori­en­ta­tion be­gan Wed­nes­day and is sched­uled to con­tinue through Sun­day.

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