LAST WINTER, after months of upheaval, acrimony and mismanagement at the Washington area's largest water and sewer utility -- some of it involving millions of dollars in contracting shenanigans -- Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) said that as far as he was concerned everything was just fine at the agency. Since then, with the help of new management, things have calmed down at the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which serves 1.6 million customers in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Now Mr. Johnson has invited a return to the bad old days at WSSC by nominating Juanita D. Miller to serve as one of the agency's six commissioners. Her nomination, an act of staggering bad judgment, is a slap in the faces of ratepayers in both counties and should be rejected by the County Council.
Ms. Miller, who served as a WSSC commissioner from 1996 to 2002, was the central figure in just the sort of bitter dispute that has come to characterize WSSC -- a clash involving the toxic interplay of race and contracts. In 1997 she led the charge to reject a white-owned company that was the low bidder on an $11.5 million sludge-hauling contract. In so doing, Ms. Miller, a former delegate in the Maryland state legislature, rejected the advice of the agency's professional staff, an extremely rare occurrence. She also served the interests of MTI Construction, a minority-owned firm whose owner had contributed to her various political campaigns; MTI was the third-lowest bidder for the contract. Ms. Miller denied any ulterior motive, and a state ethics panel found that she had violated no law. But a Maryland judge ruled a few months later that by trying to bypass the low bidder, the actions of Ms. Miller and two other commissioners who sided with her had been "unspeakable," "arbitrary" and "capricious."
Ms. Miller was also a close ally of Shaaron W. Phillips, WSSC's chief minority business officer, who is contesting the agency's move this year to fire her. Ms. Phillips has been at the heart of recent turmoil at the commission. In one instance she held up a routine maintenance contract for a white-owned firm that was unable to find a minority-owned contractor; the resulting delay cost ratepayers -- black and white alike -- $1.5 million. Separately, she pushed for the inclusion of black-owned subcontractors who, under the terms of a particular deal, would be paid but do no work. Her actions went well beyond the legitimate goal of seeking out qualified minority-owned firms that may have been excluded from insiders' networks, and lucrative contracts, in the past.
The uproar at WSSC last year led to the needless departure of the agency's competent general manager and his deputy. Fortunately, the new general manager, Andrew D. Brunhart, a highly regarded retired Navy engineer, has settled things down since he took over in February; Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) also helped matters by replacing his county's three appointed commissioners with well-regarded professionals.
Unfortunately, Mr. Johnson refused to follow suit. He left in place Joyce A. Starks, whose main contribution to the agency has been a penchant for secrecy, backroom dealing and bad judgment, and the agency's vice chairman, Prem P. Agarwal, whose firm continued doing business with the agency for a time after he was appointed to the commission. Now, by nominating Ms. Miller to the commission, Mr. Johnson gives every indication that he will tolerate a continuation of political influence-peddling in WSSC, which controls tens of millions of dollars in contracts. The County Council should stand up and tell him no.