Prince George's County lawmakers have dealt a serious setback to legislation aimed at restructuring the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, an agency that has been crippled by infighting over the past year, several area lawmakers said yesterday.
At an hour-long voting session Monday night, the delegates stripped away two significant components of a bill that was intended to restore public confidence in the region's largest water and sewer authority.
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"We have backed off of proposals that we all thought were very important if we intend to clean up this agency," said Del. Pauline H. Menes (D-Prince George's), who had supported efforts to remove several board members and revamp the appointment process.
The utility, which serves 1.6 million customers in Prince George's and Montgomery counties, has been roiled by controversy in the past year: Three of its commissioners were forced to resign, and the general manager and his deputy were bought out of their contracts after commissioners tried unsuccessfully to oust them in secret.
This week, the agency moved to fire the manager of WSSC's minority contracting office, one of seven employees who filed a racial discrimination lawsuit against the utility. And county officials signed an agreement to hire a new general manager, purposely reaching across the country to hire someone with no prior connection to WSSC.
A source familiar with the contract said the new manager will be Andrew Brunhart, a former chief of staff for Navy Region Southwest, which provides operating support on Navy bases in California, Arizona and Nevada. His name appeared recently on a short list of 11 candidates to become city manager of Dallas.
Much of the tension at the WSSC has centered on recruiting minority contractors for some of the $100 million in work doled out by the utility each year. Some commissioners stalled for weeks, or even months, before approving contracts that lacked the participation of minority-owned companies. In one instance, that included delaying the purchase of a key ingredient needed to keep the water supply clean.
Public concerns about those problems prompted lawmakers to submit 11 proposals, several of them wrapped into a single compromise bill aimed at reforming WSSC's governance. One key element of that legislation was a plan to dismiss the three remaining commissioners, all appointees of Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D). A second element would have created a formal nominating process for WSSC's six-member governing board that would remove politics from such appointments.
After heavy lobbying from Johnson, who opposed both provisions, Prince George's lawmakers voted to strip them from the bill. What remained, said the measure's chief architect, was legislation that makes no meaningful changes.
"Rather than pass a sham, I will oppose it," Del. Doyle L. Niemann (D-Prince George's) said as he prepared to vote on the heavily amended bill.
The Prince George's subcommittee vote was the first step in a long and complicated path that any WSSC reform bill would need to navigate to become law. Legislation related to the bi-county agency must win support from both Montgomery and Prince George's county delegations before coming before the full legislative chambers.
This week's action signals that there is little likelihood of legislation bringing any significant change to make it through the General Assembly this year, said Del. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Montgomery).
"Even basic common sense measures get held up in this process," said Madaleno, who had sponsored the bill to oust the Prince George's commissioners. One of those voting to scale back the WSSC bill, Del. Darryl A. Kelley (D-Prince George's), said he did not want to chip away at Johnson's authority or make any drastic change at the utility until concerns about discrimination against minority employees and contractors were resolved.
"Until we resolve that, there's really no point in addressing governance issues," he said.
Kelley also said he hoped a fresh approach would arrive with a new general manager.
Staff writer Amit R. Paley contributed to this report.