Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Politicians Must Act on WSSC

Crack, crack, crack. That’s the sound of pipes breaking in Derwood, Potomac and Temple Hills. And what sound has come from the politicians charged with fixing the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission’s problems? With the exception of Senate President Mike Miller, we have heard very little sound at all.

WSSC has two related problems that stem from a common cause. First, it cannot select a new general manager, a position that has been vacant for more than a year. The nominee agreed on by County Executives Ike Leggett and Jack Johnson looks doomed because of accusations of racial bias in his last job. Second, WSSC’s Commissioners cannot agree on a capital fee schedule to accelerate replacement of its aging pipes. The agency’s paralysis continues despite the fact that WSSC’s former general manager warned in 2007 that catastrophic pipe failures could explode “like a missile.” Federal stimulus money contributed a measly $8 million to WSSC’s backlog.

The root cause of these issues is WSSC’s Board of Commissioners, which has three members each from Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties. Of the Prince George’s Commissioners, all appointed by Jack Johnson, one is a budget manager with no utility experience, one is a contractor who has worked on WSSC contracts and one is a repeated political candidate who has made a career of alleging racism at the agency and runs up big expense tabs. All are obsessed with minority contracting, and at one point they held a 12-hour meeting dominated by that issue in the aftermath of a pipe break.

As long as WSSC’s Board deadlocks, there can be no agreement on a general manager or a capital replacement fee. It’s just that simple. Leggett’s preferred approach of cooperation with Johnson has not paid off. Consider Johnson’s recent statement about the two County Executives’ general manager nominee to the Gazette: “I don't support [him] and I don't not support [him]. I just think there are some issues that need to be resolved.” How exactly can Leggett cooperate with an individual with that style of “leadership?”

WSSC cannot be restructured without state legislation. The Montgomery and Prince George’s delegations considered several proposals heading into Annapolis for the 2009 general session, including a bill to add a rotating municipal member to the Board and a bill requiring at least one vote from each county for a Board motion to pass. Both bills failed. The General Assembly did pass bills calling for whistleblower protection and more financial oversight - good ideas that do nothing to change the Board’s structure. Neither will help WSSC hire a new general manager or fix its pipes. Only Mike Miller is threatening action.

But the failure on WSSC does not belong to the state legislature alone. The Montgomery County Council complained loudly about the agency last winter but they never developed a common position on structural reform to send to the county’s statehouse delegation. County Executive Leggett still maintains that cooperation is the way out despite voluminous evidence to the contrary. And Governor Martin O’Malley, who made saving Prince George’s County’s hospital system a priority, has been completely absent from the WSSC debate.

So what will happen the next time a giant pipe breaks and homes and businesses dry up? All of the politicians will point fingers at each other. And you know what? They will all be right.