One board member of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission resigned late Friday night, and another is expected to step down tomorrow, the first developments in what could become a major upheaval on the panel that governs the troubled water-and-sewage utility.
In her resignation letter, Commissioner Jinhee Kim Wilde (Montgomery) called the board "dysfunctional" and urged the other five commissioners to step down for the good of the agency, which serves 1.6 million customers in Montgomery and Prince George's counties.
"By taking such unselfish action, we commissioners can initiate the necessary change needed to restore the public's confidence and trust in this great organization," she wrote to Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) and Montgomery County Council President Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large). She said her resignation is effective immediately but agreed to serve until Dec. 31 so a replacement could be nominated and confirmed.
Another Montgomery commissioner, Luis Valencia, has told Duncan he is planning to resign tomorrow, Duncan spokesman David Weaver said. Valencia declined to comment.
Wilde and Valencia are hoping that their actions prompt the resignation of Gerald J. Roper (Montgomery), the board's vice chairman, county and agency officials close to the controversy said. Roper has come under fire from county and state officials who say he has not been acting in the best interests of the agency.
The board has been plagued in recent months by allegations of mismanagement, conflicts of interest and cronyism. Some state legislators have called for the replacement of all six commissioners.
The most intense criticism has focused on Roper and Chairman Joyce A. Starks (Prince George's), who were accused of paralyzing the agency when they repeatedly delayed approval of routine contracts for six months. Scrutiny intensified last month after Starks and Roper called a closed-door meting with less than two hours' notice to discuss a potential restructuring of the agency.
In recent weeks, state and local lawmakers in Montgomery County -- led by Isiah Leggett, chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party -- have been privately urging Roper to step down.
At a three-hour meeting at Leggett's house two weeks ago, Roper said he would resign if Wilde and Valencia, the other Montgomery commissioners, also agreed to step down, according to people with direct knowledge of the meeting. The sources, like several others interviewed for this article, spoke on condition of anonymity because of the political sensitivity of the situation.
But Roper expressed reservations to numerous people last week about resigning. He asked to be appointed to another county position if he stepped down, according to a senior county official who spoke with him. Roper did not respond to calls requesting comment.
"He is under tremendous pressure," said one county official. "But does he respond to the pressure? Who knows? He has really isolated himself through this whole ordeal."
Another senior county official doubted that Roper would be nominated for another countywide position. "If he gets appointed a dogcatcher, I'll be surprised," the official said.
Wilde's resignation came as a shock to many employees at the utility who viewed her as a staunch supporter of the agency's professional staff. She was an outspoken critic of four commissioners -- including Roper and Starks -- who voted at a closed-door Feb. 18 meeting to fire John R. Griffin, then general manager.
"I can no longer be a part of a Commission that has become so dysfunctional that it terminates senior management on a whim because they do not share the same political agenda as some of the commissioners," she wrote in her resignation letter. "I believe that the Commission has devolved into a dysfunctional body that no longer enjoys the confidence of our ratepayers or our elected officials."
Several state lawmakers said the resignations would not diminish pressure to overhaul governance of the agency when the General Assembly reconvenes in January.
"There's going to have to be some form of legislation pushed through," said Del. Brian R. Moe (D-Prince George's). "I can assure you that something is going to pass."