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Government & Politics

Under water: Could latest internal dissension at WSSC prompt changes?

WSSC Water, the utility for Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, is in the midst of managerial strife. Photo by Carol Highsmith via Library of Congress.

On its best days, WSSC Water, the largest water and sewer utility in Maryland, seamlessly serves 2 million residents in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties.

But it’s also a sprawling organization with 1,700 employees that receives very little public scrutiny. The leaders of the two counties appoint WSSC’s governing commission, which in turn hires and oversees its general manager, but the lines of authority and accountability are often blurred. Some policies and operational procedures are set by state government, rather than the counties WSSC serves. And the agency’s gleaming headquarters overlooking Interstate 95 in Laurel is often the object of wonder and resentment in the quotidian world of local government.

“This is the sewer department, y’all,” the late Prince George’s County Executive Wayne Curry (D) once said in exasperation. “They only need a garage with a couple of trucks out back.”

Despite — or maybe because of — its size and unique status in Maryland public service, WSSC has for decades been the source of political battles, territorial disputes, shakedowns and assorted other power plays. A new round of internal dissension has burst into the open only recently.

Less than two months after learning that her contract wouldn’t be renewed — a move that was not officially disclosed for a month and still hasn’t been explained by the five commissioners who made the decision — WSSC Water CEO and General Manager Carla Reid is seeking the ouster of two of the commissioners who sealed her fate.

In an extraordinary letter sent last week to Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks (D), Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) and leaders of the two county councils, Reid warns that the utility is lurching toward a “crisis” in governance. The existence of the letter was first reported Wednesday evening by The Washington Post.

“There are few things in life more important than water,” Reid wrote. “And as such, it is imperative that the governance structure and the individuals appointed to governance positions at the water utility have the integrity and skills to govern and lead appropriately and effectively.”

Reid complains in the letter that a month after voting in June not to renew her contract, which runs out at the end of the year, WSSC commissioners voted to drastically curtail her day-to-day powers. And she singles out two commissioners — Keith Bell of Prince George’s County and T. Eloise Foster of Montgomery County — for improperly interfering in the agency’s operations.

“Their conduct has created serious ethical and governance issues for the Commission,” Reid wrote.

Under WSSC’s governing structure, the two county executives each appoint three members of the commission, who are confirmed by their county councils and serve four-year terms. A county executive can seek a WSSC commissioner’s resignation, but if the commissioner refuses to resign, there is a cumbersome process involving a public hearing before the county council to see whether the commissioner should be removed from office.

Last week, two days after Reid wrote her letter to Alsobrooks and Elrich, Alsobrooks’ appointment liaison, Miriam Brewer, wrote to Bell, telling him the county government was seeking his removal. An Alsobrooks spokesperson, Anthony McAuliffe, said the administration had sought his resignation in July, and Brewer’s letter suggests Bell hasn’t cooperated with county officials who have tried to discuss the matter with him.

“This decision was not easy and was made after a thorough evaluation of your behavior and performance as chair and member of the WSSC,” Brewer wrote Bell. “A central concern was your routine encroachment from your role of governance to attempting to dictate the organization’s daily operations.”

Through WSSC spokesperson Chuck Brown, the agency’s commissioners declined to comment on Reid’s letter. But Bell, an administrative law judge with the federal government, told the Post and WUSA9 this week that he considered Brewer’s letter a “knee-jerk reaction” to Reid’s missive.

Elrich’s office declined to comment publicly, but administration officials have signaled that they have no intention of seeking Foster’s dismissal and want to stay out of the dispute between Reid and the commissioners. Foster is the former secretary of the Maryland Department of Budget and Management.

In her letter to Elrich and Alsobrooks, Reid, who has been WSSC general manager since 2016, asserts that the commissioners cast their decision to strip her of certain powers, especially her ability to hire and fire top staffers, as part of the “normal” transition process as the agency seeks a new leader.

“But there is nothing ‘normal’ about this decision and it has never occurred in the many General Manager transitions that have taken place,” she writes. “Moreover, at no time prior to removing my authority on personnel matters, did any Commissioner have the courtesy to communicate with me regarding a transition or to put me on notice that there would be a change to my delegated authority.”

Reid then goes deeper: “There were many irregular events which preceded this action, and as the appointing authorities for the board of Commissioners, you need to be aware of them so you can take corrective action,” she writes.

Internal probes

Much of the current stress within the WSSC stems from the implementation of a new and costly billing system for ratepayers known as Project Cornerstone. Earlier this year, the WSSC commissioners voted to hire an independent investigator to probe how the billing system contract was procured in 2017, why the implementation cost has tripled from $40 million to $120 million, and various problems with the system. The commission awarded the contract to the software firm Oracle, without going through a competitive bidding process.

Several other ethical and managerial controversies at the water utility have flared in recent months.

One WSSC commissioner from Prince George’s, Christopher Lawson, resigned from the commission earlier this year after a fellow commissioner filed an ethics complaint against him because he had ties to an agency contractor. Alsobrooks has yet to nominate a replacement for Lawson on the WSSC, so there is a vacancy on the commission. Lawson suggested at the time that he was targeted by anonymous accusers and said Reid also was being hit with accusations of wrongdoing that appeared in anonymous emails.

In her letter to Alsobrooks and Elrich, Reid asserts that in 2021, Bell and Foster resisted her attempts to remove a top IT official at the agency, Stacey Brown Chisholm. Reid suggests she wanted to fire Chisholm because Chisholm had steered work with agency contractors to friends and acquaintances, but says she ultimately decided to keep Chisholm in her role, in part, to placate the two commissioners. Chisholm maintains that those hires were encouraged by one of her supervisors and not her. Still, on June 14, the WSSC’s Board of Ethics found that Chisholm had in fact violated WSSC ethics rules and wrote: “…these actions could very well undermine the level of public confidence in the integrity of the Commission if widely known.”

One day later, the commission voted not to renew Reid’s contract.

Reid was, however, successful in firing a close associate of Chisholm’s who worked in a managerial role at the agency, Damion Lampley, who had been critical of Project Cornerstone during his time at WSSC. Lampley filed a wrongful dismissal lawsuit against the WSSC in late June, three weeks after being terminated. In a letter to WSSC officials informing them of Lampley’s intention to sue, his attorney, Mark Muyiwa Sobo, wrote, “Unfortunately for WSSC Water, Ms. Reid has acted recklessly in terminating Mr. Lampley.”

Brown, WSSC’s spokesperson, said the agency could not discuss Reid’s criticisms of Lampley and Chisholm because they were personnel matters. But within days of Reid’s letter last week to Elrich and Alsobrooks seeking the dismissal of Bell and Foster and WSSC commissioners, Chisholm and Lampley wrote to the same set of local officials, defending themselves and criticizing Reid’s tenure.

Chisholm’s letter opens with some of the exact same language Reid uses in hers, explaining to the officials why she is “taking the extraordinary step of writing to you.” She goes on to accuse Reid of harassing her during her time at WSSC, even as she was struggling to recover from breast cancer and chemotherapy, and says the general manager pushed her own associates for key positions.

“My goal for writing this letter was for the truth could be known,” Chisholm writes. “General Manager Reid sending her letter to everyone in the Commission was an attempt to discredit me and make it impossible for me to work at WSSC Water. I thought I was doing the right thing calling out my concerns about corruption, but I see that I stepped into a political game that I was not equipped to play.”

In an email to the county officials, Lampley lays out a timeline of his criticisms of Project Cornerstone and his allegations of harassment by Reid, saying the assertions in Reid’s letter “are so far from the truth.”

“Carla has continued to attack my character and I felt compelled to write this letter to shed more light on what Carla refuses to address as the crux of the matter,” he says, concluding his email with direct comments to Brewer, the appointments officer in Prince George’s County government, Tara Jackson, Prince George’s County’s chief administrative officer, and Joy Russell, Alsobrooks’ chief of staff.

“Joy, Tara, and Miriam, I would encourage you to tell your buddy to stop with the antics, playing victim, and bow out gracefully,” he writes, referring to Reid.

In early June, before Reid’s contract was not renewed, WUSA9 ran a story about high water bills at WSSC. It included certain ratepayers talking about their inability to get adequate answers about their bills from the utility, and it anonymously quoted two whistleblowers within the agency talking about Project Cornerstone and alleged corruption at WSSC.

Two days after the closed-door commission meeting on June 15 that led to Reid being informed her contract was not being renewed, the TV station aired a story about the personnel move, implying that Reid’s impending departure was due to the uproar over the billing system. Reid acknowledged the development in a statement to WUSA9, but the commission itself did not announce its vote until a month later, at its regular July meeting. The commissioners did not say why Reid wasn’t being retained.

In late June, Jackson, the Prince George’s County chief administrative officer, and her counterpart in Montgomery County, Richard Madaleno, wrote a letter to WSSC Water Commission Chair Fausto Bayonet, expressing concerns over both the management and outside investigation of Project Cornerstone and the media leaks about dysfunction at the highest echelons of the agency.

“We consider the history of media leaks over the past several months alarming,” Madaleno and Jackson wrote. “The timing and substance of the leaked information attributed to confidential sources demonstrates that the leaks must be emanating from the ranks of senior leadership. Such conduct is reflective of an organization in crisis and is also indicative of a lack of commitment to confidentiality and ethical leadership. Both of these factors will imperil the integrity of the external investigation.”

But the leaks appear to be continuing: At midday Tuesday, following a tip about its existence, Maryland Matters asked the WSSC communications office to provide a copy of Reid’s Aug. 3 letter to the county officials. After being provided with the letter, Maryland Matters asked Brown, the agency spokesperson, whether any of the commissioners would be willing to comment. That request from Brown, submitted to the commissioners in writing, was quickly declined. But within minutes, unsolicited, Maryland Matters received emails and documents from Chisholm and Lampley, as well as documents and links to articles from anonymous sources via unconventional email addresses.

‘We all need to get a handle on what is transpiring’

It seems inevitable that the latest controversies at WSSC Water will invite additional scrutiny from the Montgomery and Prince George’s county governments and from state lawmakers who represent the two counties. But it may also reopen the question of the utility’s complicated management structure.

In her letter to county leaders, Reid suggested that the counties must explore ways of improving management and accountability at the agency and may also want to look at overhauling the governing arrangements.

“In the long term, a major examination of the WSSC Water governance system is needed to avoid a recurrence of these issues in the future,” she wrote. “While WSSC Water is a strong organization, staffed with highly competent professionals, this agency is at risk from the conduct of Commissioners who do not respect ethical and governance boundaries. This must be repaired now.”

State Sen. Ben Kramer (D-Montgomery), who has passed legislation dealing with the structure of WSSC — including a measure that created an independent inspector general’s office within the agency — said Thursday “it’s a little too soon” to be discussing possible legislative remedies for the current dysfunction.

“We all need to get a handle on what is transpiring,” he said. “Clearly all the allegations from both sides are concerning, and we need to get beyond the he-said, she-said.” Kramer said he suspects “there is some truth on both sides here.”

WSSC Water is about to hire a search firm to help commissioners find a replacement for Reid. The goal is to have a new general manager in place on Jan. 1.

Complicating any broader discussions about the future of the agency, Kramer conceded, is the very nature of its structure. The fact that two counties have a say over its future, he said, “adds to the challenge.”

Local officials can’t take comfort in the knowledge that WSSC has survived managerial strife before, Kramer said.

“This is mind-blowing and it’s government at its worst,” he said.