WASA Manager Is Chosen to Lead WSSC

WASA chief Jerry Johnson says
WASA chief Jerry Johnson says "there was certainly no intent by this organization to mislead the public" about lead in the District's tap water. (By Richard A. Lipski -- The Washington Post)
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By Katherine Shaver and Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 19, 2009

Jerry N. Johnson, who oversaw the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority when high levels of lead were found in the city's tap water, was chosen yesterday for the top post at the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, the troubled Maryland utility whose underground water pipes have been breaking in record numbers.

The six-member board of the WSSC, which supplies water and sewer service to 1.8 million people in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, voted unanimously to offer Johnson the job of general manager, pending a background check and contract negotiations that must be completed by July 8, county officials said. Johnson has accepted the job.

Johnson, WASA's general manager for 12 years, is set to resign from that agency July 2. WASA's board of directors voted in April to buy him out of his $230,000 annual contract a year early, a decision that one D.C. Council member said was aimed at restoring public confidence after the way the lead discovery was handled five years ago.

Gene W. Counihan, vice chair of the WSSC board and a Montgomery commissioner, said Johnson is "a known quantity with an outstanding record as an effective manager. . . . He's put [WASA] in better financial shape and really streamlined and effectively managed that organization."

Juanita D. Miller, a Prince George's commissioner, said in an interview that the board "was satisfied" with Johnson's explanation of the lead problem. "This brings closure to this long-standing need to bring leadership to our agency," Miller said.

Counihan noted that a scientific journal announced this week that it found no evidence that WASA officials tried to influence the outcome of a 2007 research paper on lead in the District's water supply.

Johnson, 61, said he sought the "challenge" of helping the WSSC find money to replace its aging underground pipes, nearly 4,000 of which have burst in the past two years.

"The WSSC had been a model utility in the country, and I think the star might need to be polished a bit," Johnson said in an interview. "I think I can help do that." If formally approved at the WSSC's July board meeting, he will probably start in September, he said.

Johnson's hiring marks the second time that Montgomery and Prince George's leaders have tried to break a 15-month stalemate among the agency's six commissioners over a successor to former general manager Andrew D. Brunhart. Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) backed away from the first nominee, former Texas utility leader David E. Chardavoyne, in April after news accounts showed he had been targeted in a racial discrimination complaint by an African American employee.

Jack Johnson and Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) issued a joint statement saying Jerry Johnson "is nationally known as a turnaround specialist." As the first WASA general manager, they said, he guided the agency "from an unrated agency, with a projected $8 million deficit, to one with an A-plus credit rating and $170 million reserve in just two years."

Jerry Johnson came to personify WASA's failure to alert customers to the lead risk in tap water from 2001 to 2004. Most D.C residents learned that levels of the substance were dangerously high from a front-page Washington Post article in January 2004.

An investigation found that Johnson was personally involved in decisions to avoid sounding the alarm, even after federal law required the utility to issue specific warnings about health risks from rising lead levels. WASA officials knew in summer 2001 that the water contained unsafe lead levels but withheld six high test results from federal regulators and said the water was acceptable, records show.

When WASA tested its water during the next two years, records show, the utility dropped half the homes that previously had been shown to have high lead levels and avoided testing high-risk homes, a violation of federal rules. The Environmental Protection Agency, which cited WASA for violations in June 2004, called the utility's practices unprecedented and a "serious breach" of the law.

Johnson said he "takes responsibility for the organization's actions." But, he added, "I reject the notion that we failed to advise [the public]. Certainly we could have been more proactive, and certainly there could have been better public relations efforts, but there was certainly no intent by this organization to mislead the public."

Yanna Lambrinidou, president of Parents for Nontoxic Alternatives, a grass-roots organization, said, "Jerry Johnson has proven he's not the right person to be handling drinking water issues and protecting the public health."

Staff writer John Wagner contributed to this report.

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