Two cabinet nominations put forward by Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. were approved by a Senate panel on Monday — and lawmakers moved along several nominations to serve on the board of the Maryland Environmental Service, a quasi-governmental body whose leadership has been called into question.
The Senate Executive Nominations Committee also signed-off on Hogan’s request to have several long-serving former officials take on new roles.
But in a surprise move, the committee put off consideration of James F. Ports Jr., Hogan’s pick to serve as transportation secretary. The governor selected Ports, a Republican former state lawmaker, to fill the post vacated last month when Greg Slater stepped down to take the reins at the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority. Ports served until recently as executive director of the Maryland Transportation Authority (MDTA).
It could not immediately be learned why the committee passed on Ports. During the hearing on his nomination, lawmakers from both parties praised him. Sen. James C. Rosapepe (D-Prince George’s) said that although the two had philosophical differences during their tenure in the House of Delegates, “I’ve always found him to be working in the public interest. … I think he can be a great secretary.”
The MDTA has been beset by issues related to the state’s E-ZPass system, and Clarence K. Lam (D-Howard) accused Ports of refusing to acknowledge problems with the state’s tolling system, despite a torrent of complaints from motorists. “I have a lot of reservations with your approach, your openness and even transparency,” Lam said.
Ports acknowledged that he and Democrats in the legislature may disagree, but he pledged to be “open and honest.” According to a source familiar with discussions held prior to the hearing, Ports was made aware that his nomination might be delayed one week.
If ultimately confirmed, Ports will take over at a crucial time. MDOT will be in court next week, defending its decision to select Accelerate Maryland Partners, a consortium made up of Transurban and a second Australian firm, to design — and perhaps build — variably-priced toll lanes on two highways in Montgomery County. A losing bidder has accused the agency of twisting its procurement process to benefit AM Partners.
Ports would also inherit a Purple Line project that ran off the rails more than a year ago when the prime subcontractor walked off the job in a cost dispute. State officials recently approved a contract — with a $3 billion cost increase — to bring on a newly-formed consortium to complete the light rail line that would run between New Carrollton and Bethesda.
Lawmakers unanimously advanced the nomination of R. Michael Gill to run the Department of Commerce and they signed-off on Russell J. Strickland, Hogan’s choice to lead the Department of Emergency Management. Gill’s confirmation marks his return to an agency he led from 2015 until 2019. He takes the post held until last month by gubernatorial hopeful Kelly M. Schulz, who resigned to campaign full-time. Strickland has been executive director at the predecessor Maryland Emergency Management Agency since 2015.
In addition, the committee approved nominees for two non-cabinet posts, Annie Harvey to serve as corrections commissioner and Michael C. Zimmerman to become the state’s top procurement official. Lawmakers heaped praise on Harvey, a former top corrections official in North Carolina who rose through the ranks during a 30-year career there. Zimmerman acknowledged that the state’s utilization of minority-owned firms frequently falls short of its goals and he pledged a renewed push to help small, minority-owned and female-headed companies compete for state contracts.
The nominations approved on Monday move to the full Senate for consideration there.
Other actions taken by the Committee on Executive Nominations on Monday:
- Confirmed twin nominations of former state Sen. Doug Peters (D-Prince George’s) to a new term on the University System of Maryland Board of Regents and a seat on the University of Maryland Medical System Board of Directors. The UMMS board was accused of lax oversight of contracts in the wake of the Catherine E. Pugh (D) scandal. A former mayor of Baltimore, Pugh persuaded the system to purchase thousands of non-existent copies of a children’s books she wrote. She was sentenced to prison following her fraud conviction, and several top UMMS officials departed over the controversy.
- Confirmed the nomination of former Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) to serve on the Accountability and Implementation Board, a panel set up to oversee adoption of the multi-billion-dollar Blueprint education reform plan. A former three-term executive and chairman of the state Democratic Party, Leggett serves on the USM Board of Regents.
- Confirmed the nomination of retired Judge Frederic N. Smalkin, former Maryland Health Secretary Robert Neall and four others to serve on the Maryland Environmental Service Board of Directors. A retired United States district judge, Smalkin teaches at the University of Baltimore School of Law. Neall, a former senator and delegate, served one term as Anne Arundel County Executive. The MES board came under fire last summer when it approved a nearly-quarter-million-dollar severance package for former CEO Roy McGrath, who left the quasi-governmental public works agency in May to become Hogan’s chief of staff. McGrath stepped down after three months in the wake of news reports about the payout.
- Confirmed Andy Smarick to a new term on the USM Board of Regents. Smarick served previously as chair of the Maryland Higher Education Commission and president of the Maryland State Board of Education.