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Members of the Maryland General Assembly will meet tomorrow to debate a stack of bills aimed at restructuring the region’s largest water and sewer utility, an effort to fix an agency that many lawmakers believe has been rendered dysfunctional by long-running internal strife.
The turmoil at the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, decades in the making, surfaced dramatically last February when WSSC commissioners tried to oust the two top managers of the utility, which has 1.6 million customers in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties.
The conflict at WSSC is about money and race. An agency that spent decades doling out work to white-owned companies has struggled over how best to give minorities a larger stake in the $100 million in contracts awarded each year. The two figures who have embodied this battle in recent years are Griffin and Shaaron W. Phillips, head of WSSC’s minority business office.
Phillips, 44, a hard-driving Howard University graduate, has worked in the office for more than a decade. She has been at the center of a push to improve access for minority contractors, aided by a loose-knit but influential group of current and former commissioners, politicians, agency staff members and contractors.
Phillips tried to work within the rules, she said, to force managers to loosen the clout long enjoyed by white-owned companies. She urged agency officials to break up large contracts into smaller ones, so minority companies could compete. In one instance, she asked them to alter bid specifications for a pipe cleaning contract, so a smaller concern, Stillwater Septic Service of Lusby, could bid against larger, mostly white-owned competitors.
“WSSC is such a tough nut to crack,” Phillips said. “It takes years and years for a minority to get … entree into the process.”
Managers resented her tactics and started slicing away much of her office’s autonomy, asking her to send concerns about contracts to them, rather than directly to commissioners. The rift between Griffin and Phillips widened in 2003 when 11 employees, Phillips among them, complained of racial discrimination. In June, she and the others turned to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Phillips alleged that her performance reviews were delayed, blocking merit raises. The EEOC dismissed the complaints a year later, saying it was unable to conclude that any laws were broken.
In a separate discrimination lawsuit, Phillips alleges that when she confronted Griffin, he called her the “pied piper for the black people at the commission.”
In an interview, Griffin denied making the remark. The suit is pending in Prince George’s Circuit Court.
As these disputes persisted, expenses mounted. To date, WSSC has spent more than $220,000 on outside attorneys to handle the EEOC case and has budgeted an additional $150,000 for appeals — a figure that could grow, the commission was told.
During the summer, commissioners cited legal costs when explaining a 3 percent rate increase. It added $12 to $15 to the average annual bill, bringing it to $254.88 for a family of three. In Los Angeles, by comparison, a family of the same size would pay about $203.16 a year.
Some WSSC managers also have blamed Phillips’s office for obstructing maintenance of an aging water and sewer system. In 2002, when a white-owned company that provided regular pipe maintenance was unable to find a qualified minority firm for subcontracting, as required by contract, the minority business office refused to waive the requirement. No contract has been awarded, records show. It will cost an additional $1.5 million for the utility to catch up on that maintenance, officials estimate.
In February, according to agency managers, the minority business office delayed the purchase of a key chemical additive, putting public safety at risk. For several years, WSSC obtained the chemical from the same low bidder, Delta Chemical Co., a woman-owned firm in Baltimore.
Delta had been unable to find qualified minority truckers in the past, but had been excused from the requirement. This time Phillips declined, she said, because the firm did not make a “good faith” effort to contact minority vendors, including seven on a list she compiled.
Among the companies that Phillips’s office recommended to do the transport were two local companies. Both offered to solve Delta’s dilemma by joining as subcontractors for a price, even though they would do no work. Delta refused.
Senior managers overruled Phillips, noting the agency was down to a 10-day supply of the chemical. When Phillips’s allies on the commission delayed a vote on the purchase, Griffin ordered a two-month emergency extension of Delta’s contract, saying the dispute “directly threatens the health” of WSSC customers.
(Posted on February 4, 2005)