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Turmoil Surrounds Chairman Of WSSC's Operating Board

Fiscal, Personnel Decisions, Political Agenda Faulted

By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 13, 2004; Page B01

Joyce A. Starks seemed reticent, almost shy, at her first meeting as a commissioner of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission on Feb. 18. So General Manager John R. Griffin walked up and introduced himself to the church usher and foster parent.

"She was pretty quiet that first day, but she seemed very pleasant," Griffin said.

Joyce Starks "understands the power of the chairman to set the agenda and . . . the advantage . . . in running a meeting," says former general counsel Ben Bialek. (Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)

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Several hours later, Starks voted to fire the man she had just met.

The surprise ouster of Griffin and his deputy triggered months of turmoil at the giant water-and-sewer utility, and the fallout continues. Some state legislators have called on Starks to resign and are proposing major changes at WSSC, an agency with 1.6 million customers in Montgomery and Prince George's counties and an annual budget of $659 million.

Hints of an impending upheaval had surfaced a week earlier, at Starks's confirmation hearing. Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D), who appointed her, had predicted that she would challenge the status quo. "She's going to go there and shake up WSSC a little bit," he said.

By all accounts, Starks, 50, has done just that.

The agency had a history of controversy long before she arrived, from plumbing staff who accepted cash from contractors in the 1980s to a former employee who this year pleaded guilty to running a kickback scheme at the utility. But critics say Starks, who was elected chairman in June by the other commissioners, has made matters worse. She held up routine contracts while awaiting answers to obscure questions, creating delays that cost ratepayers more than $1.7 million in extra expenses. Agency lawyers say she has improperly intervened in personnel matters and held board meetings behind closed doors without legal justification.

Several officials from the state and both counties, as well as agency employees, also charge that she is acting as a proxy for Johnson. "I think it's no secret that at least one of the two county executives . . . wanted to see some changes here," Griffin said of Johnson.

A spokesman for Johnson, Jim Keary, termed that a "bogus assumption" and said Johnson believes some Montgomery officials also pushed for Griffin's ouster.

Starks, an administrator at the National Institutes of Health, rarely gives interviews and declined to speak for this article. At an Aug. 12 meeting called by state legislators investigating WSSC, she said, "I am not part of the problem; I'm a part of the solution."

Johnson, who also declined to be interviewed about Starks, said at her confirmation hearing that he met her "a number of years ago" when he spoke before a group of foster parents that she headed. Since then, he said, their relationship has grown. They also both belong to Shiloh Baptist Church in Northwest Washington.

"I found that she was a person that really cared about people," he said.

Starks also was interested in helping Johnson, and volunteered for his 2002 campaign for county executive, said her close friend Franklin C. Garmon.

Garmon and others who know Starks bristle at the suggestion that she did Johnson's bidding in voting to remove Griffin.

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