A second member of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission has resigned, as Montgomery County officials tried to head off state-mandated changes in management of the troubled regional water and sewer utility.
Luis Valencia, appointed by Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) in February, cited personal reasons for stepping down. He said yesterday that he mailed his resignation letter to Duncan last week.
His departure coincides with that of Commissioner Jinhee Kim Wilde, who in quitting last week made an appeal to fellow board members to do the same for the good of the agency.
The WSSC, which provides water and sewer service to 1.6 million customers in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, is governed by a six-member board. State and local officials have said mismanagement, conflicts of interest and political gamesmanship by board members have left the utility in disarray.
Montgomery officials said that they expected to learn today if the third appointee from the county also will step down. The other three seats are filled by the Prince George's county executive.
Valencia, an electrical engineer and telecommunications executive, said he was troubled by the way the board operates.
"The governance of the agency, from the standpoint of the board of directors, could use some improvement," Valencia said. But he added that it did not influence his decision to step down.
In her resignation letter, Wilde called the board "dysfunctional" and said she hoped that her decision to step down would prompt others, particularly Gerald J. Roper, to resign. Roper, the board's vice chairman, has played a major role in the delay of routine contracts and the forced retirement of John R. Griffin as general manager, agency staff members have said.
"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," Wilde wrote to Duncan and Montgomery County Council President Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large).
Duncan said yesterday that he expected to hear today from Roper, whom he appointed to the board in June 2003. Duncan said he spoke with him last week about the future of WSSC.
"We had a frank conversation," Duncan said. "I said, 'It is a very difficult situation [at WSSC], and it does not appear to be getting any better. How do you think we should resolve this?' "
Roper, a senior hearing examiner for the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, said he needed to think about their talk and would get back to Duncan by today, Duncan said.
Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) has given no indication that he will ask his appointees to the board -- Chairman Joyce A. Starks and businessman Prem P. Agarwal -- to step down despite recent criticism of their performance. The third Prince George's board member, Artis Hampshire-Cowan, was appointed in 2002 by Johnson's predecessor, Wayne K. Curry.
Johnson would not comment yesterday on the decision of Wilde and Valencia to quit. He said through a spokesman, Jim Keary, that his focus is on hiring a general manager at the agency to replace Griffin, whose contract was bought out by the board last month.
Johnson "is working closely with Doug Duncan to ensure that a nationwide search is conducted and a new general manager is hired to stabilize management at WSSC," Keary said.
Del. Doyle L. Niemann (D-Prince George's) said he does not expect the resignations from Montgomery County commissioners to affect state lawmakers' push to make changes at the agency.
"I just don't think it will change the dynamic," Niemann said. "You still have the two Prince George's commissioners who are seen to have caused a lot of the problems on the board. . . . Unless the [Prince George's] county executive makes a change, it's not going to go away. If anything, I think the action heightens the need to make changes across the board."
Niemann said he is working with a Montgomery County delegate to allow state and county lawmakers to have a say in who is appointed to the board.
Silverman said, "We clearly want a clear direction at the WSSC with strong professionals running the entire commission, and that has been lacking."