The governing board of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission adjourned its first meeting in a month less than five minutes after it began yesterday, renewing questions about the panel's ability to do the water and sewer agency's business.
Contractors, some from as far away as Connecticut, left the session incensed. A settlement with the agency's general manager, whom the board tried to fire five months ago, remained unresolved. Elected officials and staff at the utility, which serves 1.6 million customers in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, expressed concern about the future of the giant agency.
"We're watching the dismantling of an agency before our very eyes," said Montgomery County Council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large), chairman of the council committee that oversees WSSC.
After the meeting, she conferred with Prince George's County Council member David Harrington (D-Bladensburg) about possible state intervention to resolve the impasse.
Commissioners have been accused of paralyzing the agency since they tried to fire General Manager John R. Griffin on Feb. 18. Routine contracts have been delayed, and two of the board's last three meetings have been canceled.
Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) has lobbied for his campaign chairman, former WSSC commissioner Henry T. Arrington, to be appointed interim general manager. Council members from both counties oppose the move.
Five of the six board members were present yesterday morning, but Chairman Joyce Starks, a Johnson appointee, had scheduled discussion of Griffin's status for the afternoon, when two commissioners could not attend. Commissioner Jinhee Kim Wilde (Montgomery) tried to revise the schedule but was rebuffed by Starks, who adjourned the session after four minutes.
After the meeting, four commissioners called an emergency session for Wednesday to complete Griffin's settlement, appoint an interim general manager and begin the search for a permanent replacement. According to WSSC bylaws, a special meeting called by four commissioners does not need the approval of the chairman.
The general reaction after the meeting was outrage and concern.
Contractor Charles F. Smith awoke at 2:30 a.m. and drove from Watertown, Conn., to discuss a bid from his company, Heitkamp Inc., on a $1 million job to clean and line water main replacements.
"There are millions of people that are depending on them for water, and they can't start a meeting?" he yelled to a colleague on his cell phone.
Starks had scheduled a closed session for 2 p.m. yesterday to discuss Griffin's situation. Three of the commissioners -- Wilde, Artis G. Hampshire-Cowan (Prince George's) and Luis Valencia (Montgomery) -- protested because two were unable to attend. But Starks did not revise the schedule.
After the meeting was called to order at 9:06 a.m., Wilde tried to change the agenda. Starks recognized Commissioner Prem P. Agarwal, another Johnson appointee, who called for approval of Starks's agenda. No one seconded his motion.
Wilde again tried to move the afternoon session, but Starks, chairing her first WSSC meeting, declared the motion out of order. General Counsel Ben Bialek told her it was common to reorder agenda items.
Starks said the motion was out of order because the bylaws did not permit it. But her response left many onlookers confused.
"You can't reschedule," she said. "You can renew or you can add or reschedule. . . . It doesn't say to reschedule the entire agenda."
With that, she adjourned the meeting. It was 9:10.