The three newest board members of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission say legislative wrangling about restructuring the water and sewer utility will not affect their efforts to restore public confidence in the troubled agency.
"We're not thinking about Annapolis," said Vice Chairman Marc P. Lieber, 48, one of three members recently appointed by Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D). "We're a completely different group of commissioners, with a different set of goals and operating norms."
Sandra A. Allen runs a Silver Spring company.
Lieber heads a Rockville management consulting firm and is a former chairman of the Patuxent River Commission. The two other recently appointed members are Stanley J. Botts, 57, a retired ethics and compliance manager at Verizon Communications, and Sandra A. Allen, 56, the co-founder and chief executive officer of a Silver Spring information management company.
After a year of agency infighting that resulted in the resignation of three Duncan-appointed commissioners and the buyouts of the general manager and his deputy, the three new members said the full board is working together with a renewed focus on governance, not politics.
"We're making sure that work has to be done in a deliberate and systematic way, and we're making good progress, even in acknowledging that it has to be done," said Allen, who was appointed last month.
The utility, which serves 1.6 million customers in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, is governed by a six-member board, with each county executive appointing three members.
Last week, Prince George's County lawmakers stripped away two significant parts of a bill that would have revamped the appointment process and removed the three WSSC commissioners from Prince George's. The three commissioners are Chairman Joyce A. Starks, an administrator at the National Institutes of Health; Prem P. Agarwal, owner of a lumber and building material manufacturer; and Artis G. Hampshire-Cowan, a senior vice president at Howard University.
Much of the tension at the agency has centered on the recruiting of minority contractors for some of the $100 million in contracts awarded by the utility each year. Last year, some commissioners delayed approval of crucial contracts for weeks, even months, because of insufficient participation by minority-owned firms.
But, at last month's board meeting, Lieber said, the board sent an important message about minority participation. The board rejected a proposal that would have cost ratepayers $108,500 more a year to pay a minority-owned company that was acting as a middleman on a key contract for an important water-cleaning chemical. Board members were concerned that the minority firm did not appear to be providing commercially viable work, said a utility spokesman.
The commissioners viewed the proposal as "sort of a pass-through," Lieber said.
Instead, the commissioners agreed to award a one-year contract to the supplier, Delta Chemical Corp. of Baltimore, through a contract with Fairfax Water, formerly called the Fairfax County Water Authority, which acts as a regional purchasing agent for the chemical. The board also made clear, Lieber said, that the WSSC needed to do better to ensure that such contracts have "meaningful" minority participation in the future.
Last year, a contract for the same chemical was delayed because of agency infighting over the lack of a minority subcontractor.
Lieber said the action reflects the board's commitment to a strong minority business program. "It is our vision to have a thriving population of local, minority-owned businesses . . . that are competing on their own," he said.
Public concern about minority access and other problems prompted the proposed bills aimed at reforming WSSC's governance and appointment process. But those efforts are in jeopardy after strong lobbying by Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D), who opposed the moves.
Lawmakers in Annapolis have found it difficult to exert control over the WSSC because doing so requires cooperation between two large county delegations, each with its own agenda. The delegations' views differ about the root of the problem.
Recent conflicts over the WSSC's efforts to deliver more contracts to minority-owned companies are an example, said Del. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Montgomery).
"I'm not surprised that legislators in Prince George's County, who represent more minority business than some of us in Montgomery County, are out there advocating for their constituents," Madaleno said.