THE GOVERNING BODY of the agency that provides drinking water and sewage service to 1.6 million people in Montgomery and Prince George's counties has developed a peculiar specialty. Under the leadership of Joyce Starks, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission has cultivated a fondness for illegal closed meetings. To all appearances, the purpose of these meetings is to grab power -- specifically, the power to direct millions of dollars of public works contracts. Historically, the abuse of that kind of power has yielded criminal indictments and corruption scandals at the WSSC, which Mrs. Starks chairs. But Mrs. Starks, no historian, persists -- in open defiance of the explicit advice of WSSC lawyers, the rising ire of elected officials, the indignation of the agency's professional staff and the objections of some of her fellow commissioners.

Appointed by Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson, Mrs. Starks took office only in February. Since then she has contrived, with the collusion of at least two of the other five commissioners, to plunge the agency into such a morass of mismanagement that it is a small miracle that the paid employees of the agency have not quit in droves; the worrisome thing is it may yet come to that. In her latest escapade, Mrs. Starks called a closed meeting of the commission after business hours last week. Her intent was to take control of the agency's minority contracting office away from the utility's professional managers and have it report directly to the commission chaired by Mrs. Starks herself. According to The Post's Amit R. Paley, the WSSC's chief lawyer told Mrs. Starks and three other commissioners present that the meeting -- convened without advance notice to two missing commissioners, to say nothing of the public -- violated agency bylaws. Undeterred, Mrs. Starks plowed ahead, only to be thwarted when one commissioner of conscience, Artis G. Hampshire-Cowan, walked out, depriving the commission of a quorum.

This is not the first time Mrs. Starks has ambushed the WSSC's professional staff. At her first board session, in February, she voted in a closed meeting to fire the agency's top two managers, who by most accounts were doing a creditable job. That move failed -- the closed meeting was illegal -- whereupon Mrs. Starks and her allies compounded the damage by paralyzing major public works contracts for months, apparently to force the eventual resignation of the two managers.

This latest episode bolsters suspicions that Mrs. Starks, perhaps at the behest of her patron, Mr. Johnson (although he denies it), is determined to meddle with the agency's contracting procedures. That should set alarms ringing. With an annual budget of $659 million, the WSSC is a wellspring of potential business for minority contractors, a number of whom helped Mr. Johnson get elected in Prince George's. And that's the rub: Encouraging and helping minority-owned firms to compete for lucrative contracts is fine -- up to the point where it becomes mainly about cronyism and political patronage. Mrs. Starks seems intent on nudging things ever closer to that point by trying to grab contracting decisions away from the agency's paid professionals.