Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. yesterday urged the Montgomery and Prince George's county executives to remove what he called a "cancer" on the board of the troubled Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission.
While he stopped short of calling for the resignation of the agency's six-member board, Miller (D-Calvert) said the executives need to find better-qualified commissioners to lead the water and sewage utility, which serves 1.6 million customers in the two counties. Each executive, Douglas M. Duncan (D) of Montgomery and Jack B. Johnson (D) of Prince George's, appoints three board members.
"They should excise this cancer before it spreads," Miller said. "We need to appoint some very well-qualified commissioners who have business experience and who are people of unquestionable integrity."
The call for change came as commissioners returned to routine business yesterday for the first time in six weeks.
The board approved six construction contracts, but the meeting was marred by concerns about a conflict of interest and a project that will cost the agency an additional $300,000 because the board repeatedly delayed its approval.
The board adjourned its last meeting, on July 29, after less than five minutes and did not approve a $2.15 million contract with Civil Construction of Cheverly, to replace water mains. Because of repeated delays by the board, the bid expired after 60 days and the firm declined to extend it. The second-lowest bid, from Sagres Construction of Alexandria, was approved by the commission yesterday for $2.47 million -- $320,000 more than the original bid.
Also yesterday, commissioner Prem P. Agarwal (Prince George's) was asked to recuse himself from a vote on a $1.1 million contract bid from Spiniello Cos. after another commissioner noticed that he had repeatedly done business with the company.
"I didn't think about it," Agarwal said after commissioner Artis G. Hampshire-Cowan (Prince George's) asked him to abstain from voting. Agarwal agreed to recuse himself and the contract was approved unanimously by the other board members.
Agarwal's company, G.E. Frisco of Upper Marlboro, has received more than $6,500 for various subcontracting projects done for New Jersey-based Spiniello. Agency records show that one of the bills, for $776, was paid to G.E. Frisco this spring -- more than six months after Agarwal was appointed to the commission.
Board members at the utility are prohibited under state ethics laws from doing business with the agency.
This is not the first time conflict of interest concerns have been raised about Agarwal. His company was paid $1.46 million as an agency subcontractor in the nine months after his appointment to the WSSC board. In June, his company was set to receive $22,000 from Spiniello as a subcontractor on a different WSSC project, but the agency's general manager halted the deal at the last moment.
The turmoil at the agency will be the subject of a fact-finding session tonight organized by state legislators from Montgomery and Prince George's counties. The meeting, open to the public, will be at 7 at WSSC headquarters, 14501 Sweitzer Lane in Laurel.
County and state officials say there is agreement that the agency's board is in disarray, but there is no consensus on a remedy.
Del. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Montgomery) said it might be necessary to replace all six commissioners.
"Maybe it's time for a fresh start," he said.
Miller said another solution would be to have the governor appoint the commissioners, but he said that was unlikely given the political situation: "We do have a Republican governor, don't we?"
Reforms at the agency will be further complicated by the legislative process. Any change to the utility must be approved by two House bicounty committees -- one for Prince George's and one for Montgomery -- both county delegations in the House, both county delegations in the Senate, a majority of the House and Senate, and the governor.
"This may be the single most painful legislative process known to man," Madaleno said.