The board of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission approved several major contracts yesterday that the agency's chairman had tabled for months, and at the same time denied allegations of mismanagement and disarray.
Gerald J. Roper, the board's vice chairman, defended a closed-door meeting, proposed for Aug. 16, that was called on less than two hours' notice while one board member was out of town and another was sick. He denied reports by senior utility officials that the meeting was an attempt to place the utility's Small Local Minority Business Enterprise Group under the direct control of the six-member board.
"I didn't hear any discussion about" the group, he said of the meeting, whose stated topic, according to an official posting, was the group.
Joyce A. Starks, the chairman, also responded to agency staff members who said the utility missed about $900,000 in savings because she delayed approval of a cost-cutting measure frequently used in construction. She said it was her responsibility to take as long as necessary to fully consider items before the board.
"We must be deliberate and thorough before taking action," she said.
State legislators have recently called for changes to the governing board of the agency, which has been facing charges of mismanagement, conflicts of interest and cronyism. Some lawmakers want all six commissioners replaced.
The commissioners themselves are divided. They met for almost two hours yesterday in closed-door session for "a discussion concerning working relationships among the commissioners," according to the agenda. There was some confusion before the session when Ben Bialek, the agency's general counsel, told Starks that she had called the meeting improperly. The board had to vote to suspend the commission's bylaws in order to legally close the meeting.
During their public session, the commissioners approved eight different items -- some of them major projects whose approval was greeted with relief by agency staff. The commissioners finalized the sale of two WSSC properties to Montgomery County. A former sludge site at 16600 Elmer School Rd. in Poolesville, currently being leased for $10 a year to the county, will be sold for $1.3 million; a 17-acre site on East Gude Drive in Rockville will be sold for $3.5 million.
The board approved the use of a procedure, called construction management at-risk, that staff say will save about $3 million on a $79 million project to renovate the Potomac Water Filtration Plant. The commissioners also gave the green light to a $9.94 million project to design the final part of a bi-county supply main that will bring water to Prince George's and eastern Montgomery counties.
The commissioners spent several hours interviewing firms to conduct a national search for a new general manager. The board attempted to fire former general manager John R. Griffin on Feb. 18 and paid him more $250,000 last month to step down. Yesterday marked the first commission meeting since Carla R. Joyner became interim general manager. In her first address to the commissioners, she expressed hope for a collaborative relationship between the board and staff. "I don't want us to be divided in any way," she said.