By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 8, 2009
During the past three years, Juanita D. Miller, one of six board members of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, has spent thousands of dollars of the utility's money on conferences, charitable events and political functions, far surpassing her colleagues, according to WSSC records.
Last year, the Prince George's County commissioner spent $8,300 to attend a Harvard University conference, $180 on a charity golf tournament and $500 to help a local high school band travel to Boston.
In previous years, Miller, a former Democratic state delegate who said she is exploring a run for public office next year, also spent $300 of the utility's funds to attend Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley's inaugural festivities, $150 to celebrate the retirement of former state attorney general J. Joseph Curran Jr. and $250 for a community benefit honoring outgoing Prince George's County Council member Thomas R. Hendershot, according to WSSC documents for 2006, 2007 and 2008 obtained under a public records request.
The other five commissioners were reimbursed primarily for mileage to board meetings and travel-related expenses for conferences in water and sewer management. Miller heavily outspent them in Maryland's political, business and charitable circles.
There is nothing illegal about Miller's spending, which is minuscule compared with the utility's nearly $1 billion annual budget. But it came at a time when the WSSC was clamoring for more money to inspect and replace aging underground pipes.
The six commissioners -- three appointed from Montgomery and three from Prince George's -- oversee WSSC's budget priorities.
Miller said she buys tables at charitable fundraisers and other events as part of her "community outreach" efforts to promote the WSSC. For example, she said, the Dr. Henry A. Wise Jr. High School jazz band members she supported were "children of ratepayers." She said other board members used what she learned at the Harvard seminar on corporate governance.
"It's nothing about me running for office," said Miller, an instructional specialist for Prince George's County schools. "I'm a public servant, and this is part of the role of being a public servant. . . . I don't think I've done more than any responsible commissioner should do."
WSSC commissioners, who are paid $13,000 annually, have been allowed to spend as much as $3,000 per year to cover expenses and charitable contributions but have voted to reduce that amount to $1,500, effective July 1. Some additional travel and conference costs are paid from other WSSC funds, such as the utility's training budget, so no commissioner exceeded the limit.
Comparing overall spending by board members is difficult, because Miller and her two Prince George's colleagues have served all three years covered by the records, while the three Montgomery commissioners were appointed within the last 14 months of that time. However, Miller has far outspent even her Prince George's counterparts.
From 2006 to 2008, her expenses totaled $29,600, the records show. Prince George's commissioner Joyce Starks, the board's chairman, spent $15,420. Prince George's commissioner Prem Agarwal spent $5,786. Montgomery commissioners Gene Counihan and Adrienne Mandel spent $9,531 and $6,324, respectively.
Roscoe Moore Jr., who was appointed a Montgomery commissioner in June, has sought no reimbursements so far.
In spreading money among local charities and community events, Miller far exceeded her colleagues at $4,600. Starks spent $755, while Agarwal spent $225 and Counihan $175. Mandel and Moore had no such expenses, according to the records.
WSSC officials said the utility's Finance Department approves the charitable contributions and travel reimbursements. Spokesman Jim Neustadt said utility money may be spent on tickets to nonprofit community events that "have relevance to the mission of WSSC" or enhance its "customer satisfaction, reputation and image."
Miller's spending on political events was allowed because the gatherings were considered nonpartisan, he said.
Starks said events can help commissioners network for the utility, particularly with small and minority contractors, who, she said, can be in short supply.
"You have to be out there and be very proactive," Starks said.
Miller said she opposed the new, stricter spending limits because she didn't think the savings would be significant. Still, she said, in tight fiscal times, "it shows the public we're supportive of cutting back."
Research director Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.