TO RESIDENTS of the Maryland suburbs, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission is an important utility providing water and sewer services for 1.6 million ratepayers in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. But to local politicians, the WSSC, which controls tens of millions of dollars in contracts, has far too often been something more -- a wellspring of corruption and enormous profits for the politically well connected. You'd think officials would be on their guard to avoid any return, or even the perception of a return, to those bad old days. But Jack B. Johnson, the Prince George's County executive, appears blind to it. Today the Prince George's County Council will consider his latest choice for the WSSC commission, a nominee who exemplifies the abuses of the past. Council members should stiffen their spines and tell him no.
Mr. Johnson's pick to serve as one of the agency's six commissioners is Juanita D. Miller. As a WSSC commissioner from 1996 to 2002, Ms. Miller wound up in the middle of exactly the sort of scandal that Marylanders have long associated with the utility -- a bitter fight involving the poisonous interplay of race and contracts. In 1997 she led an attempt to reject the low bid of a white-owned company for an $11.5 million sludge-hauling contract. At the same time she served the interests of the third-lowest bidder, MTI Construction Inc., a minority-run company whose owner had contributed to her political campaigns. A state ethics panel found she had not broken the law, but a Maryland judge ruled that by attempting to spurn the low bidder, the actions of Ms. Miller and two other commissioners who sided with her were "unspeakable." Ms. Miller denied any ulterior motive.
The timing of Mr. Johnson's move is incomprehensible. Last year the agency weathered infighting, management upheaval and the senseless ousting of a competent leadership team -- all of it tinged with allegations of influence-peddling and political and racial favoritism. This year a measure of calm has been restored under new leadership. Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, who, like Mr. Johnson, has the power to appoint half of the WSSC board, signaled his determination to chart a new course by naming three new qualified members, all of them squeaky clean and free of the taint of the WSSC's past. Yet rather than pitch in to help chart a new path for the WSSC, Mr. Johnson nominates Ms. Miller, one of 15 applicants for the post. He contends that Ms. Miller, his longtime political ally, has experience; in fact it is precisely the wrong kind of experience. Prince George's residents shouldn't tolerate it, and neither should the County Council.