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A Contentious Choice To Fill WSSC Vacancy

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By Ovetta Wiggins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Juanita D. Miller, a member of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission during some of its more bitter disputes over minority contracting, was returned to the board yesterday by Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson and the County Council.

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Miller, a former member of the House of Delegates, served from 1996 to 2002 on the WSSC, which oversees water and sewer service for 1.6 million customers in Prince George's and Montgomery counties. Each county executive fills three seats on the six-member board, and Johnson (D) nominated Miller to replace Artis G. Hampshire Cowan, whose term ended in June.

The County Council approved Miller's nomination 8 to 1. Council member Tony Knotts (D-Temple Hills), a WSSC employee, abstained.

During her first stint on the board, Miller was in the middle of the agency's frequent battles over how best to give minorities a bigger stake in the more than $100 million in contracts the agency awarded each year. She was part of a push to dismantle what critics called an "old boy's network" of white-owned firms that traditionally enjoyed a lock on WSSC business.

The highest-profile dispute involved an $11.5 million sludge-hauling contract and the commission's 1997 decision, overturned in court, to bypass the white-owned firm that was low bidder. Miller, who led the move, denied any ulterior motive, although the third-lowest bidder, MTI Construction Inc., which she supported, was a minority-run company whose owner had contributed to Miller's various political campaigns.

Despite the final council vote, some members were privately dismayed by Johnson's pick and concerned that the utility is still recovering from a long period of dysfunction that culminated last year in the removal of the three Montgomery appointees and the ouster of the agency's general manager.

One council member, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of his desire to preserve relations with Johnson, said before the vote: "We just have to hold our nose and do it. . . . Let's just say it won't be one of our prouder moments."

General Assembly members who tried unsuccessfully to get rid of Johnson's previous board selections and overhaul the appointment process also expressed concern.

"Obviously, she has a questionable past, but she does have experience working in WSSC," said Del. Brian R. Moe (D-Prince George's). "I guess it's a kind of wait-and-see situation. We have to be optimistic, but we'll be watching."

Others were more supportive of Miller, long a fixture in county politics.

County Council member Camille Exum (D-Seat Pleasant) said she has known Miller for many years. "I look forward to working with you on issues involving WSSC," Exum told her at the confirmation hearing.

Johnson yesterday defended his choice.

"I selected her because of her understanding of the commission and her willingness to make a difference," he said during the confirmation hearing.

"I have looked carefully at her service on that commission, and I have come to believe firmly that we need someone who knows the commission."


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