Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson said yesterday that the next general manager of the troubled Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission should come from outside the bi-county agency and be free of political connections to local elected officials.
"We want someone from the outside who has no ties to the agency, someone who will do a great job irrespective of politics, not connected to me, [Montgomery County Executive Douglas M.] Duncan, not anybody."
The six-member governing board of the water and sewer utility is facing increasingly pointed criticism for recent disarray at the agency, including canceled meetings, delays in approval of contracts, ethical breaches and the forced resignation of general manager John R. Griffin. Each county executive appoints three members to the board.
On Wednesday, Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) urged Johnson and Duncan to remove what he called a "cancer" on the board and replace current members with "people of unquestionable integrity." He also raised the possibility of state intervention, including having the governor appoint board members.
Yesterday evening at WSSC headquarters in Laurel, Prince George's and Montgomery lawmakers reinforced the threat of a state takeover, telling board members that they need to find a new general manager within 120 days or face wholesale changes in the agency's governance when the General Assembly reconvenes in January.
"I would like to urge you to begin counting that 120 days immediately," said Del. Adrienne A. Mandel (D-Montgomery) at what was billed as a fact-finding session convened by the legislators.
Johnson (D) had recently floated Henry T. Arrington, a former WSSC board member and Johnson's 2002 campaign chairman, as a possible general manager, an idea met with dismay by lawmakers in both counties. Asked last night whether Arrington is no longer a candidate for the job, Johnson said: "That's not relevant. . . . I don't need to say that. I think the statement speaks for itself."
Johnson and Duncan issued a joint letter to lawmakers yesterday, pledging their commitment to finding Griffin's successor as quickly as possible. They said they were troubled by the prospect of state control and defended the current board as "one of the most diverse in the Washington metropolitan region, and an example of bi-county cooperation that stands as a model for the region."
In an interview, Duncan said the letter was meant to reassure the legislative delegation that things "are being done correctly" at WSSC. "We clearly do not want the state coming in and taking over. We don't think that benefits anyone."
Commission Chair Joyce Starks, a Johnson appointee, and Vice Chair Gerald Roper, a Duncan appointee, faced tough questions from the 17 delegates at the session. Legislators asked them about a contract delay that cost the agency $300,000; a board meeting that was adjourned after less than five minutes; an internal audit of the general manager that board members have declined to review; and a closed session that was convened in violation of state open-meeting laws.
Starks denied any wrongdoing. "I'm not part of the problem; I'm part of the solution," she said to the laughter of about 130 members of the crowd, composed mainly of WSSC employees.
There was also sustained laughter when Starks blamed the staff for the contract delay. She said the agency should provide commissioners with contract bids at least 90 to 120 days before they come before the board for a vote. That would be impossible, several employees pointed out, because most bids expire after 60 days.
Roper's insistence last night that Griffin and his deputy had not been ousted by the commissioners also prompted chortles from the audience.
The managers retired, Roper said, because of their own "personal decision."
In fact, the commissioners voted to pay each manager more than $250,000 last week to step down from the agency. The board voted Feb. 18 to fire them, but the decision was later overturned when the agency's general counsel determined that the vote was invalid.
Griffin, in his statement to the legislators, said for the first time that the commissioners had tried to oust him at the request of at least one of the county executives.
"I think it's no secret that at least one of the two county executives wanted to see some changes here," he said, an indirect reference to Johnson.
Griffin called for changes to the governing structure but said he would offer his specific suggestions only after he steps down at the end of this month.
Del. Ruchard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Montgomery) said he was circulating proposed legislation to remove all six commissioners. "We need a fresh start," he said.
Many of the employees at the session, who declined to give their names for fear of retribution from the board, agreed with Madaleno's sentiments.
Staff writer Tim Craig contributed to this report.