Water Fight
Corrosive politics plague the sanitary commission.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

FEW THINGS are more essential to 1.8 million consumers in Prince George's and Montgomery counties than clean water and sewer service. Yet, for more than 14 months, officials from both counties have stalemated on picking a new general manager to run the agency that provides those utilities, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC). The impasse has, by many accounts, demoralized employees and paralyzed the six-member board that oversees the agency. Blame goes mostly to the Prince George's commissioners, who have stonewalled qualified candidates in a bid to sneak through their pet pick.

First, some background: In the past, some Prince George's commissioners have tried to use the WSSC to direct lucrative contracts to minority businesses, qualified or not. We support reaching out to minority businesses, and the WSSC has standards in place that encourage equal- opportunity bidding. What these commissioners advocate goes further. In 1997, for example, WSSC staff recommended that the commissioners award a sludge-hauling contract to a white-owned firm that was the lowest bidder. Commissioner Juanita D. Miller of Prince George's cried foul, alleged that the bidding process was stacked against minorities, and tried to reject the bid. This despite the fact that then-general manager Cortez A. White, like Ms. Miller, is black. A Maryland judge later described Ms. Miller's actions as "unspeakable" and "capricious."

Most recently, The Post's Katherine Shaver reported that Ms. Miller, who has political aspirations, has spent much more of the utility's money than her colleagues on political functions and other events at a time when financial considerations have forced the agency to reduce inspections of its aging pipes, which are bursting more frequently.

When the WSSC board couldn't agree on a successor to former general manager Andrew D. Brunhart, whose contract expired in February 2008, Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) and Prince George's Executive Jack B. Johnson stepped in. They agreed on one candidate, but Mr. Johnson changed his mind after it was revealed that the prospect had twice sued his employer and had been subject to a racial discrimination lawsuit.

Prince George's commissioners have always preferred Rudolph S. Chow, the WSSC's interim deputy general manager. Ms. Miller, who is serving another term on the board, in particular has been adamant in her support of Mr. Chow, noting that he topped other candidates in a dubious scoring system agreed on by the commissioners. She alleges that Montgomery commissioners refuse to confirm Mr. Chow because he's Asian American. Mr. Chow's critics concede that he's an effective manager but question whether he's ready to lead an agency with a $1 billion annual budget. They point out that he has less experience than other candidates and, more to the point, would offer little resistance to Ms. Miller.

The WSSC is meant to safeguard public health, not be a political football. Its commissioners should remember that.

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