Friday, May 23, 2008

Troubled waters still roil WSSC

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Even as more comity has appeared among Montgomery and Prince George’s representatives on the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, old issues and divisions have resurfaced.

A recommendation to allow the WSSC general manager to double the value of contracts he or she can award — a threshold set about 10 years ago — has at least one Prince George’s member raising an eyebrow.

‘‘Right now it would not be a good idea until we get a permanent [general manager],” said Commissioner Juanita Miller, who ruffled some colleagues earlier this month when she accused Montgomery commissioners of being unfair in deliberations to select someone for that job.

Interim general manager Teresa D. Daniell, who became deputy general manager in November, ‘‘is too inexperienced,” Miller said.

Daniell, a retired Air Force officer who most recently managed infrastructure and operations at Laughlin Air Force Base in Texas, was hired by former general manager Andrew Brunhart, a civil engineer and retired naval officer, just a few months before the commissioners failed to renew his contract.

Miller supports interim deputy general manager Rudolph Chow for the top post and criticized Montgomery commissioners for not selecting him at a closed-door meeting April 30. According to Miller, Chow outscored other candidates by at least five points.

Citing confidentiality policies for the selection process, Montgomery commissioners declined to comment. Rules that commissioners agreed to follow stated: ‘‘If there is a spread of less than five points among the top candidates, the commissioners will consider having a second round of interviews with candidates receiving the highest scores [and] if one candidate receives an average score that is more than five points higher than all the other candidates, that candidate will be the choice.”

Daniell and Chow — a longtime WSSC employee who headed customer care, the utility’s largest division — are both said to be well-liked within the agency.

The WSSC has been criticized for not elevating minorities to top posts. Chow is of Asian descent, and Daniell is of Hispanic descent.

Wednesday’s commission meeting also included reports of progress, including fewer sewer overflows, basement backups and fines for the agency; but tensions between the two counties and between some commissioners and management remain.

Acquisitions Director Thomas Laboon recommended giving the general manager authority to award contracts up to $1.5 million, bypassing commission involvement. The current maximum is $750,000.

Using charts and statistics, Laboon showed that the current level has caused the commission to have to review more contracts, and that that process causes delays. Miller was not convinced.

‘‘It’s worth a discussion. It’s worth a review, but our GM has one of the highest signing authorities,” Miller said. ‘‘It doesn’t make sense to jump out and say ‘oh, yeah, we’re going to give it to you.’”

WSSC officials said trends show more corporations are increasing their signing authorities.

But the WSSC’s general manager, with a $750,000 limit, can act on much larger contracts than some peers at similar utilities, according to those utilities’ officials.

General managers at Fairfax County Water Authority must seek board approval on contracts higher than $75,000. At the East Bay Municipal Utility District, a water and sewer utility in the San Francisco area often compared to the WSSC, the limit is $60,000.

The District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority general manager can approve contracts up to $1 million and modifications up to $500,000.

By the time the WSSC’s board decides whether to extend the general manager’s reach, a new Montgomery commissioner may be on board to vote.

Wednesday was the last meeting for Commissioner Norman L. Pruitt, who resigned after less than a year.

Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett has received 12 applications for the seat as of Tuesday’s deadline. The spot must go to a Montgomery resident who is not a Democrat, but Leggett has not said when he will name a replacement and did not return calls for comment.

The Montgomery County attorney’s office refused to release more than the names and hometowns of the applicants, arguing that they were prohibited from releasing resumes by a section of the Maryland Public Information Act that covers job applications and the disclosure of scholastic achievement.