Friday, May 23, 2008

Plugging the gaps in WSSC leadership

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Given the history of squabbling by commissioners of the regional water and sewer authority known as WSSC, there should be little surprise that their latest attempts to hire a new top leader appear snared in procedure and politics.

During a closed-door session last month, the six commissioners of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission dickered over how to rank candidates being considered for the general manager’s office.

This job search became necessary when commissioners refused to renew the contract of Andrew D. Brunhart, a respected engineer who took the job almost four years ago in the wake of another bitter struggle between the commissioners over the ouster of his predecessor. Among his perceived transgressions: Brunhart apparently stepped on the wrong toes as he was making reforms to small- and minority-business contract programs that had been hurt by past episodes of patronage and power-brokering.

At an April 30 meeting, the commissioners split over the process and criteria used to evaluate internal and outside candidates, according to the account of one member. The process crippled the chances of one strong, internal candidate, she argued.

The Montgomery and Prince George’s county executives each appoint three members to the board, and last month’s tiff apparently split along county lines, according to reporting by The Gazette’s Margie Hyslop.

Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett, who signaled early in his term that it was time to begin reforming the WSSC’s board by appointing new faces, has yet to get deeply involved in this latest dust up. He must — sooner rather than later, privately and publicly — and call upon his counterpart in neighboring Prince George’s to intervene to bring new, aggressive leadership.

One reason is basic: Is anyone with the talent needed to guide the agency going to want to walk into such a snake-pit of dissension and derision?

Revolving-door management hurts continuity in any large organization and the WSSC, which is the nation’s eighth largest water-and-sewer system, is facing a challenging future.

An operating budget approved earlier this month includes an 8 percent increase in bills for most customers — about $3.75 a month for the average residential users — the largest jump in 15 years. The budget also includes money to overhaul about 27 miles of water pipes and 51 miles of sewer lines, a fraction of what is needed. Managers have said for years that a more aggressive plan is necessary to replace aging pipes and warned of ‘‘catastrophic failure” of some high-pressure water lines that are wearing out.

Leggett has a fresh chance to influence the workings of the WSSC board. One of the newest commissioners, Norman E. Pruitt of Ashton, abruptly resigned his four-year term after just six months, claiming the WSSC appointment required too much time. In selecting his replacement, Leggett can recommend a candidate with a strong backbone who is able to oppose and expose any hidden agendas of other members and work to ease strained relationships.

Unless they want to hear renewed calls to privatize the utility, an idea that has been beaten back in the past but could bring a higher level of accountability to WSSC management, both county executives, and county councils, need the resolve to patch fissures at the commission and insist on a strong, independent-minded general manager.