The Washington Post
Pr. George’s throws out WSSC Water official
Board commissioner led questioning of billing system’s soaring costs
The Prince George’s County Council removed a county representative to the board of Maryland’s largest water utility Tuesday after county leaders said they had lost confidence in his ability to lead and communicate.
The unusual decision came as WSSC Water’s board has scrutinized the utility’s billing system, which has tripled in cost, from $40 million to $120 million. The ousted commissioner, Keith E. Bell, had led the board’s recent questioning of why utility leaders had procured the system without seeking competitive bids and how they have managed its soaring costs since.
In a 9-1 vote, council members supported County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks’s (D) call to remove Bell after county officials said he improperly meddled in personnel matters and the utility’s daily operations. Bell told the council that he had tried to protect ratepayers, saying, “When I see waste and impropriety, or what appears to be impropriety, I have to say something.”
Several council members said they didn’t fully understand the billing system’s cost increases or the source of tensions between Bell and the utility’s outgoing general manager, Carla A. Reid. However, they said they agreed with Alsobrooks that WSSC Water needed a “clean slate,” especially as the utility is seeking a new general manager and bond-rating agencies eye its financial stability.
“We don’t have the ability to sift through all of the details and make a definitive determination as to who’s wrong and who’s right,” council member Mel Franklin (D-AT Large) said. “What is clear is that the relationship between the county executive and one of her appointees has broken down. What’s also clear is that there is, regardless of who’s at fault, a crisis in leadership over at WSSC.”
Reid’s contract is set to expire at the end of the year after the six-member WSSC Water board decided in June to not renew it. The board, at Bell’s suggestion, also recently limited Reid’s authority to make high-level personnel decisions, leading Reid to publicly accuse him and another commissioner of “abhorrent conduct” and “misuse of power.”
Reid serves at the pleasure of the board, which is composed of three commissioners representing Prince George’s and three representing Montgomery County. Commissioners, who earn $13,000 annually, are appointed by county executives. Alsobrooks (D) appointed Bell in late 2019. His term was set to expire in May.
It’s highly unusual for executives to remove commissioners midterm, as well as for a county council to weigh in on that decision. Commissioners may seek a council hearing to object to their removal, but none have done so in at least 20 years, several local officials said.
Jared Mccarthy, the county’s deputy chief administrative officer, said Bell and Reid’s relationship had deteriorated over the past six months. He said county leaders questioned the “manner” of Bell’s inquiries of WSSC Water staff during a February public meeting.
Bell also told county officials he was “too busy” to meet with Reid or county officials other than virtually, Mccarthy said. The “breakdown” in communication, he said, led to Alsobrooks’s “lack of confidence” in Bell, as well as concerns that bond-rating agencies considering the utility’s AAA bond rating were watching the “loggerheads” between him and Reid.
“It is time for the parties to move on,” Mccarthy told the council during the 90-minute hearing. “This is like a relationship that’s gone south. You know when communication is bad. You know when you’re being ghosted.”
Reid also called for Bell’s removal, telling the council that he had violated “all norms of professional conduct and governance standards” and had disrespected staff with “demeaning language” during public meetings.
Bell, a federal administrative law judge, said he grew concerned last fall when he learned nearly 20,000 calls to the utility’s customer service center had gone unanswered in October. That was after WSSC Water had urged customers who had fallen behind on bills during the pandemic to contact the utility to set up a payment plan or risk losing service.
The overwhelming call volume, Bell said, also stemmed from the costly billing system’s inability to let customers establish payment plans online, more than two years after it launched in mid-2019.
“Based on my experiences, the issues that plague WSSC are more about a lack of transparency, accountability and overspending,” Bell told the council. “All of my efforts were to protect the interest of ratepayers.”
He said he’s also concerned that two employees who spoke up about the billing system’s problems have been terminated.
“It is time for a clean slate,” Bell said. “They should clean up the act at WSSC.”
Allegations that he was “ghosting” county officials are “fabricated,” he said, adding that he had declined to attend in-person meetings twice in three years because of his busy work schedule. After his removal, he said that he was “relieved” to be free of the stress that Reid’s criticisms had caused and that he sought the public hearing because “I thought it was important that ratepayers understand there are still some problems at WSSC.”
WSSC Water commissioners voted unanimously in February to freeze most spending on the billing system, known as Project Cornerstone, and to hire an independent firm to investigate its procurement and cost increases. That investigation remains underway.
The other commissioner whom Reid had criticized as overstepping her authority, T. Eloise Foster of Montgomery, remains on the board. Richard Madaleno, Montgomery’s chief administrative officer, said Tuesday that Montgomery Executive Marc Elrich (D) has no plans to remove Foster.
WSSC Water provides water and sewer services to nearly 2 million people in the Washington suburbs.