In Water Crisis, Leggett Chose Low-Profile Tack
Friday, June 20, 2008
As Montgomery County residents awoke Monday to widespread water problems that shut down restaurants, day camps and swimming pools, one person notably absent from the public eye was the county's top elected leader, County Executive Isiah Leggett.
Unlike the out-in-front style of the District's Mayor, Adrian M. Fenty (D), or Leggett's predecessor, Douglas M. Duncan (D), Leggett's approach was to work behind the scenes in the first potential public health crisis of his 18-month tenure: what is considered to be one of Maryland's most far-reaching water service breakdowns in at least two decades.
Leggett's first news interview took place 10 hours after he learned of the ruptured water main at 3 a.m. His first news conference was held at 8 p.m., only after Leggett said he had new information to convey to the public.
"People elect you to solve the problem," Leggett said. "To posture, to give people information they already have, there may be some political mileage in that, but citizens wanted me to engage, to get the answers."
Responding to emergencies can be tricky for politicians and inevitably invites criticism no matter the approach. If one gets out ahead of a crisis, there is the potential to provide misinformation or confuse the situation. If residents are frustrated because of unplowed roads, or in this case a lack of water pressure, the elected official can become a target of public anger.
In an age of rapid-fire communication, 10 hours can seem an eternity to people who are trying to cope with an emergency, said Bethesda-based pollster and political analyst Keith Haller. Residents, he said, also want to see that their elected leaders are taking charge and sympathetic.
"You don't want to sit idle for too long," Haller said. "It does behoove the chief executive to be out in front in the middle of a public emergency, even if you don't have all the answers. People need reassurances that the government is doing everything conceivably possible to work with other agencies to solve the problem."
When a pair of three-alarm fires ravaged Eastern Market and the Georgetown branch of the D.C. Public Library in a single day, Fenty shuttled between the two scenes to reassure residents. When a sniper targeted the area in 2002, Duncan repeatedly stood in front of the cameras to try to convey a sense of normalcy. There were times, however, when Duncan's penchant for being out in front backfired. During a particularly bad snowstorm, Duncan declared that 80 percent of roads had been plowed. He quickly heard complaints from residents who lived along the other 20 percent.
That Leggett chose to stay behind the scenes is typical of the low-key former Howard University law professor who was known as a quiet, diplomatic dealmaker during 16 years on the County Council. It is a governing style his allies say is more workhorse than show horse. "Fenty or Doug might have jumped on a shovel and had a photo op, but photo ops don't solve anything," said council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large). "I'm not sure it matters who is on the air doing the talking."
Two hours after arriving home at 1 a.m. Monday from a conference in Ocean City, Leggett got word of the problem from chief administrative officer Timothy Firestine. He worked the phones from home, got in a quick workout on the treadmill and arrived in Rockville about 9 a.m.
In the early morning hours, he said, the challenge was getting information from the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which operates water and sewer systems in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. The rupture occurred about 9 p.m. Sunday.
"It was a little confusing, and I will admit that," Leggett said in an interview on WTOP (103.5 FM). "We were looking for information ourselves, and we did not want to provide erroneous information."
Before 6 a.m., the county alerted all of its employees, posted information about the water main break on its Web site and linked to the WSSC's boil-water advisory. Leggett said residents had multiple ways of getting information online and other ways from the media, and he was not overly concerned that the county's emergency e-mail alert system was not used (the only two employees capable of sending out messages were out of town).
He canceled a half-dozen appointments away from his office and concentrated on trying to get the system back on track in a series of phone calls with the WSSC and state and local health officials. Leggett chose not to visit the site of the water main break or the county's emergency operations center, he said, so as not to get in the way of workers.
A critical juncture came late in the day, when the county learned that water service would soon be restored. After consulting with state Health and Mental Hygiene Secretary John M. Colmers about the threat of contamination, Leggett decided to order about 1,200 businesses, including markets and restaurants, not to sell food unless it was prepared before the rupture.
Leggett was ready to announce his decision at 5:30 p.m. but waited until 8 p.m. to give news outlets time to get to Rockville and aides time to prepare documents. Leggett is "less interested in getting his name in the paper or getting on the evening news than he is in solving problems," said his spokesman, Patrick Lacefield. "You can't confuse style with substance."