The governing board of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, embroiled in disputes with the agency's general manager, has repeatedly delayed approval of routine contracts over the past five months, pushing back construction schedules and replacement of outdated equipment, according to records and interviews.
Senior staff members have accused the six-member board of commissioners of paralyzing the giant utility, which provides water and sewer service to 1.6 million customers in Prince George's and Montgomery counties, at one point this year leaving more than a million of them with only a two-week supply of safe drinking water.
The turmoil has renewed calls for changes at the agency, starting with the commission, whose members are appointed by the Prince George's and Montgomery county executives.
"This agency has been frozen in time by the commission that is supposed to be running it," Montgomery County Council member Michael L. Subin (D-At Large) said. "In 18 years, I have seen nothing like this."
The delays began in February, when the commissioners met in closed session to fire General Manager John R. Griffin and his deputy, P. Michael Errico. The dismissals -- prompted, some commissioners said, by dissatisfaction with Griffin's management of financial and labor issues -- were later ruled invalid by agency attorneys. But relations between Griffin and the board remain tense, and they are negotiating a severance package.
Thirteen contracts and other business items have been tabled by the commissioners since Feb. 18, records show. None was tabled over the previous six months, agency staff members said.
Most recent agenda items were set aside by Commission Chair Joyce Starks, who was appointed to the board in February by Prince George's executive Jack B. Johnson (D), and Vice Chair Gerald J. Roper, appointed by Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) last year.
Commissioners have twice delayed the sale of two unused WSSC properties for $4.8 million to Montgomery. One of the properties, at 16600 Elmer School Road in Poolesville, is leased to the county for $10 a year, said John N. McLeod, WSSC entrepreneurial team chief. If the commission does not approve the sale of that land, the county can continue to pay $10 a year until 2010.
On June 30, the board tabled a contract to remove an outdated pumping station. Shutting it down would save about $40,000 in maintenance costs, WSSC spokesman Chuck Brown said.
Neither Starks nor Roper gave specific reasons for wanting to delay the contracts, saying only that they had questions, said three staff members who insisted on anonymity for fear of reprisals from the board.
Roper did not return phone calls for comment, and Starks declined to discuss the delayed contracts.
"When I decide to make my comments, I will make a general comment that will address all concerns," she said.
Calls to Griffin's office for comment were directed to WSSC representatives.
Commissioner Jinhee Kim Wilde said some delays will jeopardize WSSC's construction schedule. When the items are finally approved, contractors might no longer be available, she said.
Perhaps the most striking example of disarray at the agency came Feb. 18, when four commissioners voted to table a contract for a chemical needed to treat drinking water, leaving at one point only a two-week supply of water at Potomac Water Filtration Plant, which serves 75 percent of WSSC's customers. "The tabling of this agenda item by the Commissioners directly threatens the health of more than one million WSSC customers," Griffin wrote in a Feb. 20 memo. He signed an emergency two-month contract to obtain the chemical.
The commission wanted the chemical provider, Delta Chemical Corp., to find a minority subcontractor to ship the chemical. When it could not, Griffin suggested waiving the requirement because the next-lowest bidder would have charged almost $1 million more. A commissioner at the time, W. Gregory Wims, said he voted to table the contract because he lacked information before the meeting. Agency employees dismissed that explanation, saying briefing materials were sent to commissioners a week earlier.
Nine senior managers wrote a strongly worded memo to the commissioners March 10, saying the board had "compromised the stability and sullied the reputation of the agency." The authors included two candidates mentioned as possible successors to Griffin: Chief Financial Officer Thomas C. Traber and Chief of Mission Support Carla R. Joyner.
"It is extremely disappointing and disheartening that you would make a decision on such an important contract without giving us an opportunity to address your questions or concerns," the memo said. "Senior managers and employees need to be viewed as a resource not as an adversary."
The managers expressed their support for Griffin and Errico and suggested it was time to rethink the commissioners' role in the agency. "This may be the opportune time for introspection and re-invention of the Commissioners as a true corporate Board of Directors . . . delegating the daily operation of this agency to its General Manager," they wrote.
The agency has had a long history of problems, including charges of racial discrimination, criminal investigations into bribery and kickbacks, and allegations of favoritism in contract awards.
But commissioners' specific grievances against Griffin are not completely clear, leading some agency officials and politicians in both counties to suspect a political agenda. They say Johnson is seeking Griffin's removal so he can assert more control over the agency, long a source of patronage jobs for elected officials in both counties.
"Certain commissioners have their own agenda which do not put the mission of the agency first," said a former WSSC chair Manuel Geraldo, who added that there was only one word to explain the recent problems: Politics.
At her first commission hearing after her appointment by Johnson, Starks voted to fire Griffin and Errico. This week, officials in both counties said Johnson was seeking to replace Griffin on an interim basis with his 2002 campaign chairman, former WSSC commissioner Henry T. Arrington.
Johnson would neither confirm or deny whether he was lobbying on Arrington's behalf.
Subin called on both counties -- which each appoint three members to the WSSC board -- to replace commissioners that are ineffective or beholden to the county executive that appoints them. "There's an old saying: Lead, follow or get out of the way," he said. "We need to find commissioners who are not going to be subjected to the will of the county executive."
County Executive Duncan rejected those calls. "There is no consideration, at least in the executive branch, to replace our commissioners on WSSC," Duncan spokesman David Weaver said.