The former head of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission said the water and sewage agency's board should be abolished and replaced by a different governing structure.
In his first interview since his forced retirement in August, former general manager John R. Griffin said Monday that the six-member board was an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy at the agency, which serves 1.6 million customers in Montgomery and Prince George's counties.
He proposed that the general manager report directly to a standing bi-county committee made up of council members and each county's chief administrative officer and environmental protection director. Currently, each county executive appoints three commissioners to the board.
"Why do we even need a commission since we're ultimately accountable to the county government?" Griffin said. "Why not just streamline the governance?"
Griffin's plan, which he called a "thinking-outside-the-box" idea, would transfer some of the commissioners' authority to the general manager. Under his proposal, the general manager would approve all contracts. Currently, construction contracts exceeding $750,000 must be approved by the commissioners.
The proposal is the most recent in a series of calls for reform at the agency, which has been plagued in recent months by allegations of cronyism, mismanagement and conflicts of interest. All three Montgomery commissioners have resigned, and there is mounting pressure on the Prince George's commissioners to step down.
The General Assembly is set to consider a number of bills next term to modify the way the utility is governed. Some legislators said Griffin's plan merits special consideration because of his firsthand knowledge of the agency.
"I think anything he proposes will be taken very seriously because of his experience as general manager and state secretary of natural resources," said Del. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Montgomery).
Other officials had a cooler response to Griffin's plan.
"Is reinventing the wheel the right answer?" said Montgomery County Council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large), chairman of the council panel that oversees WSSC. "I think a simpler solution may be better."
Floreen also said that council members already are "stretched thin" and they should not serve on another committee that is unnecessary.
WSSC Commissioner Jinhee Kim Wilde, who resigned last month but agreed to serve until a replacement is found, said creating an oversight committee of elected officials would exacerbate allegations of cronyism.
"Politics is what got us into trouble this year, and more politics is not going to help," she said. "We need to focus on appointing good, qualified people to the board instead of political cronies."
Del. Brian R. Moe (D-Prince George's) said he was worried about the cost of a complex revamping of the agency. "That is expensive, and the ratepayers end up paying the cost for all that," he said.
Several state legislators, including Moe, have proposed reforms to the utility's governance. Under Moe's plan, the general manager would serve as a permanent chairman of the board, who votes only to break ties. He also proposed that the state board of public works approve all contracts over $1 million. The legislation calls for an oversight committee that would report to the General Assembly about the agency's performance.
In August, state Sen. Leonard H. Teitelbaum (D-Montgomery), a former commissioner at the utility, drafted legislation that would add a seventh commissioner to vote only on personnel issues. His measure also would require a super majority of five votes to approve personnel decisions.
Madaleno has proposed legislation that would remove all six commissioners.
Griffin said that if the General Assembly decides his proposal is too radical, it should consider three measures he described as critical to restoring stability to the agency. He said the legislature must clearly define the responsibilities of the commissioners. It should establish minimum qualifications to serve on the board, he said.
And, he said, the number of commissioners should expand from six to nine. One member should be added from the executive branch of each county, and the chairman should be appointed by the state Board of Public Works.
But some county officials in Montgomery and Prince Georges's said they do not believe the General Assembly needs to pass any legislation to reform the utility.
"The structure is not broken," said Montgomery County Council President Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large). "I don't think the council has any interest in changing the current structure."