The general counsel for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission resigned yesterday, saying that he lacked confidence in the agency's commissioners and that governance of the giant water and sewer utility needs to be overhauled.
Ben Bialek told utility Chairman Joyce A. Starks (Prince George's) in a scathing letter that the staff no longer trusts the commissioners and that management changes are needed.
"This continued lack of accountability, particularly when coupled with a widely perceived 'army of occupation' style of leadership and lack of trust of the professional staff, is deeply disturbing," wrote Bialek, who has been general counsel for two years. "There are many fine employees at WSSC. They deserve better."
Starks did not return a telephone call seeking comment. Vice Chairman Gerald J. Roper (Montgomery) called Bialek's criticism "unfounded."
"There is no reason for the entire board to be replaced," Roper said. "Based on what? There is no basis. The water is clean, the sewage is being treated, we have a triple-A bond rating, there is no lead in the water."
The six-member board, which oversees agency operations for 1.6 million customers in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, has been plagued in recent months by political infighting that delayed approval of contracts and by allegations of conflicts of interest and mismanagement.
The turmoil began when the board voted 4 to 2 on Feb. 18 to fire General Manager John R. Griffin and his deputy, P. Michael Errico. Bialek ruled the dismissal invalid because the closed session had not been advertised properly.
In August, the board paid the two officials more than $250,000 apiece to step down.
Bialek wrote in his resignation letter that there "has never been any coherent explanation for the firings or any expression of contrition for the shabby treatment of the former managers."
His resignation capped a turbulent week for the board, whose members are appointed by the Montgomery and Prince George's county executives.
Last Friday, Commissioner Jinhee Kim Wilde (Montgomery) resigned, calling the board "dysfunctional." On Monday, Commissioner Luis Valencia, who like Wilde was appointed by Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), also stepped down.
The resignations came after Duncan, concerned about a possible state takeover of the agency, called the two Montgomery commissioners to explore ways to prevent legislative intervention.
Before Duncan became involved, Isiah Leggett, chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party and a former Montgomery County Council member, began quietly urging Roper to step down. Roper has refused.
"I have been appointed to protect the ratepayers, and that is what I have done," Roper said.
Several state lawmakers have indicated they plan to press for legislation to overhaul the agency -- a move Duncan and Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) are resisting.
This week, Johnson said through a spokesman that he had no plan to replace commissioners from Prince George's and that the focus should be on finding a new general manager.
Duncan said this week he would not ask Johnson to intervene, but other Montgomery officials are growing impatient.
"Our belief and hope would be, if all the commissioners would resign, including the Prince George's County appointees, it would forestall any state action," said Montgomery County Council President Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large). "Our commissioners seem to be stepping up to the plate in that direction."
Bialek wrote that it was doubtful the "distractions" at the agency would end until county or state officials intervene to remove the commissioners.
"Too much has happened over the last six months and nothing has occurred to indicate to me that the Commissioner leadership has learned anything from the events of the recent past. Quite to the contrary," Bialek wrote.