The Prince George’s County Council removed a county delegate from the board of Maryland’s largest water company on Tuesday after county officials claimed they had lost faith in his capacity for leadership and communication.
The board of WSSC Water examined the utility’s billing system, which had tripled in price from $40 million to $120 million when it made the extraordinary decision. Keith E. Bell, the recently-fired commissioner, had led the board’s recent inquiry into why utility executives had purchased the system without soliciting competitive bids and how they had handled its subsequent skyrocketing costs.
Council members backed County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks’ (D) request to fire Bell in a 9-1 vote after county officials claimed Bell had unlawfully interfered with personnel decisions and the utility’s day-to-day operations. “When I detect waste and impropriety, or what appears to be impropriety, I have to say something,” Bell said in a statement to the council, indicating that he had made an effort to protect ratepayers.
Many council members claimed they were unsure of the reasons for the cost hikes in the utility’s billing system and the friction between Bell and Carla A. Reid, the utility’s departing general manager. But they concur with Alsobrooks that WSSC Water required a “clean slate,” particularly when the utility is looking for a new general manager and bond rating companies are looking closely at its financial viability.
Council member Mel Franklin (D-At Large) said, “We can’t dig through all of the minutiae and make a clear conclusion as to who’s wrong and who’s right.” What is evident is that the county executive and one of her appointees no longer get along. There is also an apparent leadership crisis at WSSC, regardless of who is to blame.
The six-member WSSC Water board agreed in June not to renew Reid’s contract so that it will expire at the end of the year. The board recently reduced Reid’s ability to make important personnel decisions at Bell’s request, prompting Reid to publicly accuse Bell and another commissioner of “abhorrent conduct” and “misuse of power.”
The board of three commissioners from Prince George’s County and three from Montgomery County appoints Reid at its discretion. County leaders appoint commissioners, who are paid $13,000 yearly. Bell was appointed by Alsobrooks (D) in late 2019. In May, his term was scheduled to end.
Executive removal of commissioners mid-term and county council input on that decision is uncommon. According to several local officials, commissioners can request a council hearing to contest their disposal, but none have done so in at least 20 years.
The county’s deputy chief administrative officer, Jared McCarthy, claimed that Bell and Reid’s relationship worsened during the previous six months. During a February public hearing, he said county officials questioned the “manner” of Bell’s questions to WSSC Water staff.
McCarthy claimed Bell also informed county officials that he was “too busy” to meet in person with Reid or any other county officials. He said that the “breakdown” in communication was the cause of Alsobrooks’ “loss of confidence” in Bell and his worries that bond rating companies keeping an eye on the “loggerheads” between him and Reid were questioning the utility’s AAA bond rating.
During the 90-minute session, McCarthy told the council, “It is time for the parties to move forward.” “This is similar to a failing relationship. When communication is poor, you can tell. When you’re being ghosted, you can tell.
Reid also urged the council to fire Bell, claiming that he had humiliated the employees by using “demeaning language” in open sessions and had broken “all norms of professional behaviour and governance standards.”
When Bell, a federal administrative law judge, learned that roughly 20,000 calls to the utility’s customer support line had gone unanswered in October last year, he said he became concerned. Following WSSC Water’s advice to get in touch with the company to set up a payment plan or risk losing service, clients who had fallen behind on their bills during the epidemic did just that.
Bell claimed that the excessive call traffic was also caused by the expensive billing system’s inability to allow consumers to create payment plans online, more than two years after it was introduced in mid-2019.
Bell informed the council, “Based on my experiences, the problems at WSSC are more about a lack of openness, accountability, and overspending.” “My entire effort was directed at defending ratepayers’ interests.”
He added that he is especially troubled by firing two employees who raised issues with the billing system.
Bell declared that “a fresh start” was necessary. “WSSC needs to clean up its act.”
He said that the claims that he was “ghosting” county authorities were “fabricated” and that his hectic work schedule had prevented him from attending in-person meetings only twice in the previous three years. After being fired, he claimed to be “relieved” to be free of the tension that Reid’s critiques had brought on. He also claimed that the public hearing was necessary so that ratepayers would realise that WSSC still has some issues.
The WSSC Water commissioners unanimously approved most of Project Cornerstone’s expenditures in February. They also decided to employ a private company to look at the system’s procurement and cost hikes. That probe is still ongoing.
T. Eloise Foster of Montgomery, the other commissioner Reid reprimanded for exceeding her authority, is still on the board. Montgomery Executive Marc Elrich (D) has no intentions to remove Foster, according to Richard Madaleno, the city’s chief executive officer, who announced on Tuesday.
WSSC Water offers water and sewage services to around 2 million in the Washington suburbs.