FROM TIME TO TIME over the years, there has been talk of privatizing the agency that supplies water and sewer services to hundreds of thousands of customers in suburban Maryland. The idea generally runs into broad opposition from officials justifiably wary of forfeiting public oversight of a utility so vital to public health in the two jurisdictions it serves, Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Still, privatization's allure never quite fades when it comes to the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, largely because of the agency's episodic history of contracting shenanigans and corruption. At the moment, the best argument for privatizing WSSC is Joyce Starks, chair of the agency's six-member commission.
Mrs. Starks, appointed by Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson, took office early this year -- and immediately helped plunge the agency into chaos. At her very first meeting, on Feb. 18, she presided at an illegal closed session of the commission in which she voted, with three other commissioners, to fire the agency's well-regarded general manager, John R. Griffin. The board's vote, promptly invalidated, has never been adequately explained, and it triggered months of tumult. Agency business has been frozen and important contracts have been delayed, in at least one case resulting in an additional $320,000 cost to the public. At one point last month, Mrs. Starks adjourned a WSSC board meeting after four minutes, disregarding important pending business including millions of dollars in contracts. The attempt to fire Mr. Griffin and his deputy also paralyzed proceedings, ultimately leading earlier this month to a $500,000 severance package to ease their departure -- needlessly, in the view of much of the WSSC's long-suffering professional staff.
WSSC is a creation of the state, and Maryland state lawmakers are alarmed at the upheaval. Last week, 17 of them met with Mrs. Starks and the board's vice chair, Gerald J. Roper, in hopes of getting some answers about the agency's descent into dysfunction. They got answers, all right: incoherent ones. The more the lawmakers quizzed the two commissioners, the less their answers made sense. At one point, Mrs. Starks groundlessly blamed the agency's professional staff for the contracting delays, saying the commissioners should be able to review contract bids 90 to 120 days before having to vote on them. Agency employees explained that would be impossible, given that many of the bids expire after 60 days. At another point, Mrs. Starks was asked repeatedly why she had voted to fire Mr. Griffin. She was unable to provide a cogent answer, and Mr. Roper did no better.
We are not advocates of privatizing WSSC, but the status quo is turning it into a laughingstock, and is untenable. A number of Maryland delegates are discussing ways to restructure the agency's governance; some are threatening a state takeover. It is politically difficult to remove a single WSSC commissioner, but one lawmaker, Del. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Montgomery), is circulating proposed legislation to replace all six. We vote "aye."