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Turmoil Surrounds Chairman Of WSSC's Operating Board

The agency's general counsel later declared the ouster invalid because the closed-door session had not been properly advertised, and the commissioners spent the next six months negotiating the departure of the two managers. In August, the board paid each more than $250,000 to step down.

The ouster was costly on more than a monetary basis, said Ben Bialek, the agency's general counsel who resigned in September. The vote to fire Griffin, who was popular among agency staff members, cost Starks employee support.


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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"She obviously had a very expensive first day at the office," Bialek said.

The distrust between Starks and the agency's professional staff increased in the next months.

"She seemed to be suspicious of most of us," Griffin said, adding that she had numerous questions on technical and procedural issues that, under agency policy, are to be handled by the utility's professional staff.

Agency policy, for example, states that the general manager solely is responsible for personnel decisions. After Griffin hired a new chief of plant operations in May, Starks asked him to justify the decision and to send her copies of all the applications for the job.

"The process for promoting, new positions, terminating, and any other personnel action should be shared with the Commissioners prior to offers being made to show that we the Commissioners and the Senior Leaders are in agreement," she wrote in a May 20 e-mail.

Confusion and Delays

More than once, she has tried to hold board discussions about WSSC operations in secret, only to be told by agency lawyers that the practice is unlawful.

On one occasion, she moved to end a session a few minutes after it began. The scene unfolded at a July 29 meeting, when Commissioner Jinhee Kim Wilde (Montgomery) tried to modify the proposed agenda and Starks ruled the motion out of order. Bialek told Starks the motion was, in fact, in order, but Starks ignored him and ended the session four minutes after it began.

The move outraged contractors waiting to do business with WSSC and cost the agency an additional $320,000 when a bid to clean water mains expired and the agency had to turn to the second-lowest bidder.

"She understands the power of the chairman to set the agenda, and she understands the advantage of the chairman in running a meeting," Bialek said. "She shouldn't be underestimated in that regard."

State and local officials also have accused Starks and Vice Chairman Gerald J. Roper (Montgomery) of delaying approval of routine contracts, which pushed back construction schedules and cost the agency hundreds of thousands of dollars. The two commissioners tabled more than a dozen contracts and business items this year, sometimes for months, although most, if not all, the items were eventually approved.

Starks said she tabled the contracts because she did not have enough information to vote on them.

Agency staff members said they provided her with hundreds of pages of supplementary materials on the contracts and offered to brief Starks and Roper privately on complex subjects. Employees said Starks still professed confusion over contracts that had been explained to her repeatedly.

Some of those delays were costly. The agency lost about $900,000 because she refused to allow a vote on a cost-cutting measure commonly used in the construction industry, agency officials said. Starks said she needed more information on the method: construction management at-risk.

"I don't want to error in any way," she said at the time. "The more questions and answers we get, the better our decisions are."


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