FINALLY, MARYLAND elected officials are moving to contain the mess at the agency that provides drinking water and sewer services to 1.6 million customers in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. It's about time: Mismanagement, contempt for the agency's professional staff and hints of corruption have characterized the six-member board that runs the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, one of the 10 largest water utilities in the nation. Embarrassed by the board's buffoonery, Montgomery officials pressed two of the county's three commissioners to announce that they will resign; the third, board Vice Chairman Gerald J. Roper, who has played a starring role in the WSSC's descent into turmoil, is being urged to follow suit. We hope he does so, and soon.
Mr. Roper, in league with WSSC Chairman Joyce Starks, a Prince George's appointee, was instrumental in a senseless series of actions that have demoralized and distracted the agency. They began in February with a bungled attempt to fire the agency's general manager and his deputy, both competent professionals, then compounded the damage by freezing the approval of routine contracts, which cost ratepayers hundreds of thousands of dollars. Along the way they have meddled with the WSSC's contracting procedures, ignored warnings about holding illegal closed meetings, conspired (unsuccessfully) to wrest control of the agency's minority contracting office away from the utility's professional managers, and triggered the resignation of the agency's highly regarded general counsel, Ben Bialek. At the very least, Mrs. Starks and Mr. Roper have displayed atrocious judgment and plunged the agency into disarray; many fear that their intent is to steer contracts to the politically well connected. At an agency with an inglorious history of cronyism and patronage, and an annual budget of $659 million, those fears should be taken seriously.
Real power at the WSSC resides with Douglas M. Duncan, the Montgomery County executive, and his counterpart in Prince George's, Jack B. Johnson, each of whom appoints three members of the board -- and has the authority to initiate their removal. Mr. Duncan, eyeing a run for governor in 2006, at first steered clear of the WSSC mud pit; lately he has switched to damage-control mode, intervening to urge his appointees to resign rather than let the agency become a greater political liability.
By contrast, Mr. Johnson has chosen to stonewall. He has stuck by his appointee, Mrs. Starks, despite her calamitous performance and, by doing so, fed suspicions that the WSSC is once again being viewed as a potential source of patronage or contracts for political friends. To dispel those suspicions, Mr. Johnson should follow Mr. Duncan's lead by cleaning house; both men should then name commissioners who are professionally capable and beyond reproach. The alternative for the WSSC, if it is left to fester, is likely to be intervention by state lawmakers when the Maryland General Assembly convenes in January, and loss of local control over a vital agency.