Md. Water Agency Blocks Access to Budget Data

Montgomery council member Nancy Floreen chairs the panel overseeing the bi-county sanitary commission.
Montgomery council member Nancy Floreen chairs the panel overseeing the bi-county sanitary commission. (Courtesy Of Nancy Floreen)
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By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Montgomery County's inspector general says the water agency that serves the area is refusing to provide information that would show how it has spent $2.3 billion provided by the county over the past three years.

The disagreement spotlights an ongoing debate among state and local lawmakers over who has oversight of the 90-year-old Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which has been roiled in the past decade by disputes over contracting and personnel.

The region's largest water and sewer utility, WSSC is chartered by state law as an agency of Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Although the counties' treasuries do not provide direct payments to the utility, the elected county councils in the two jurisdictions approve its annual budget, water and sewer fees and include its construction projects in their annual budgets. The agency, which has a $757 million annual budget, is governed by three commissioners from Montgomery and three from Prince George's, nominated by the county executives and approved by the county councils.

WSSC officials said no law requires them to provide information about contracts, vendors or spending to Montgomery Inspector General Thomas Dagley. Spokesman John White said in an e-mail that the agency conducts its own audits through an outside company and with its "independent Internal Audit Department."

The disagreement over access to WSSC spending data came to light recently when Dagley wrote to Montgomery officials asking for help.

Without the data, he said in a letter to county officials, his office is unable to "protect Council-approved dollars from fraud, waste and abuse, and address taxpayer concerns generally regarding open and honest spending practices."

Dagley said he sought the information as part of a broader review he is conducting of Montgomery's government accounts to determine whether appropriate safeguards are in place to prevent waste, fraud and abuse.

His efforts have drawn a mixed reception among Montgomery officials. County Attorney Leon Rodriguez said he agreed with former WSSC general manager Andrew D. Brunhart, who said in a letter to Dagley that the inspector general lacks the authority to obtain the data. In a legal memorandum, Rodriguez offered Dagley two options: He could ask Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett's office to seek the data and conduct its own examination, or Dagley could file a public information act request and do the work himself.

The Prince George's council has an auditor who has not requested similar data from WSSC but could do so, under state law. In an interview, Rodriguez acknowledged that "there may be a gap in the law."

Michael Faden, the chief staff attorney for the Montgomery council, said Leggett's office could easily resolve the dispute by asking for the data on behalf of Montgomery's inspector general and then turning them over to him, rather than having someone in Leggett's office conduct the probe.

Dagley said other agencies receiving funds authorized by Montgomery officials -- such as the school system, Montgomery College, various county government agencies, and the park and planning agency -- have agreed to turn over their contract and spending data. The park and planning agency, like the water agency, is governed by both Montgomery and Prince George's commissioners and derives its authority from state law.

Montgomery County Council member Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty) said he was concerned that Dagley was unable to obtain WSSC data. Council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large), who chairs the committee that has oversight over WSSC, said, "He should be able to get that information."

Brunhart, who stepped down last month amid turmoil at the agency and whose replacement is now being sought , said in his letter that "WSSC is not a county-funded agency," but a "bi-county agency of the State of Maryland."

However, state officials two years ago said the legislature's auditor also lacks authority to look into WSSC, even thought it was created by state law.

In 2004, WSSC commissioners tried to oust the agency's' two top managers. Eventually, General Manager John R. Griffin and his top deputy were bought out of their contracts; the three commissioners appointed by then-Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) were asked to resign; and other commissioners have faced allegations including conflicts of interest to violations of the state's open meetings law.

In 2005, the agency fired Shaaron W. Phillips, director of its minority business office, accusing her of insubordination and breach of duty. Phillips, who emerged as a key figure in a behind-the-scenes struggle over how the agency awards contracts totaling about $100 million each year, sued. Her lawsuit is pending.

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