Carla Reid, head of WSSC Water, is calling for the removal of two commissioners

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The outgoing head of Maryland’s largest water utility is seeking the resignation of two utility company board members, saying WSSC Water is an “organization in crisis.”

General manager Carla A. Reid’s call follows a months-long scrutiny of the utility’s billing system, particularly by the two commissioners who she says should resign or be removed. The commissioners — Keith E. Bell, representative of Prince George’s County, and T. Eloise Foster, representative of Montgomery County — have questioned the utility’s acquisition and management of a three-year-old billing system, whose $40 million budget has tripled.

Some utility officials said the system also failed to do enough to help customers troubleshoot billing issues online, leading to numerous complaints of long waits and unanswered calls at the utility’s customer service center.

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in a (n Letter of August 3rd Addressing leaders of Montgomery and Prince George counties, Reid said the commissioners unduly interfered in day-to-day operations by reducing their powers to make high-level personnel changes over the past month. Reid, who has headed WSSC Water since 2016, said the move followed the board’s decision in June not to renew her contract, which expires at the end of the year.

The seven-page letter, made available to the Washington Post, illustrates the kind of political infighting that has plagued the Bicounty agency for years, including tensions between general managers and commissioners. Foster said during the July board meeting that the board, in a closed session, decided not to renew Reid’s contract, but didn’t say why. Board members told Reid that they would limit their personnel authority, as is often the case with other outgoing CEOs.

Reid has publicly accused the commissioners of squeezing their power – a step she says had not been taken in previous leadership changes at WSSC Water – because she is the utility’s first female chief.

“The WSSC Water is in crisis due to the heinous behavior of certain commissioners and their abuse of power,” Reid wrote. “…The behavior of these commissioners has created a cancer in the organization.”

WSSC Water, which has approximately 1,700 employees, is governed by a six-member board, with district boards in Montgomery and Prince George’s each appointing three commissioners. The managing director reports to the board of directors. According to a spokesman for WSSC Water, Reid is paid $297,252 annually and the commissioners $13,000.

WSSC Water provides water and wastewater services to nearly 2 million people in the Washington suburbs and has come under scrutiny for high management costs, water lines and spills of untreated wastewater. It’s funded by customers whose rates have grown about 6 percent annually over the past few years.

Reid’s letter received a quick reply from Angela D. Alsobrooks (D), the executive secretary of Prince George’s County. In an Aug. 5 letter to Bell, Miriam L. Brewer, Alsobrooks’ appointments liaison, said the executive “intends to initiate the process of your removal” from the board.

“A key concern has been your routine interference from your leadership role in an attempt to dictate the day-to-day operations of the organization,” the letter reads.

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In an interview, Bell called Brewer’s letter a “knee-jerk response” to Reid’s allegations.

Bell, a federal administrative justice judge, denied unduly interfering in personnel matters and said he was working to fulfill his fiduciary responsibilities as commissioner. Bell led the Board’s recent inquiry of WSSC water officials into the cost overruns of the billing system.

“My goal here is to make sure we’re doing the right thing for WSSC Water and the taxpayers,” Bell said.

Foster did not respond to a call and email Wednesday asking for comment. Montgomery’s chief administrative officer, Richard S. Madaleno Jr., said Wednesday that Elrich had no plans to remove Foster from the board. Madaleno cited her “decades of leadership,” including as a former secretary of the Maryland Department of Budget and Management.

“He has complete confidence in her and the value she brings to the WSSC’s installment payers,” Madaleno said in an interview.

Reid returned to WSSC Water from senior administrative positions with the Montgomery and Prince George governments. She worked for the utility for 20 years before quitting as an assistant general manager in 2006, five months after being subpoenaed for speeding and crashing a commercial vehicle on the Capital Beltway, her fifth incident involving a commercial vehicle.

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In an interview, Reid said she is seeking to have the two commissioners removed because she believes the board must be “impartial” to choose their successor. She said she wasn’t told why the commissioners voted not to renew her contract, but said it “felt like retaliation” after citing allegations by the utility’s ethics committee that an IT Manager helped hire six friends and former colleagues, including some who were not qualified.

“I never have a reason,” Reid said. “I never had any discussion with the commissioners about the transition or their thoughts on not renewing my contract.”

The board has been scrutinizing the accounting system launched in mid-2019, which grew from a budget of $40 million to $120 million, according to board meeting records. Commissioners have said leading utilities have not made it clear that the system would be the first of its kind that its supplier, Oracle, has implemented in North America. WSSC Water spokesman Chuck Brown said the commissioners, including Foster, were told the system would be based on new technology before unanimously approving the contract.

The billing system, known as Project Cornerstone, was designed to replace the previous outdated system and eventually allow customers’ water usage to be reported to the utility automatically from their meters, rather than through meter readers, according to board meeting records.

Utility officials said they chose Oracle to develop the system in 2017 without bidding on the project because the utility was already using other Oracle software. Reid also said the utility needed the system to quickly roll out a new rate structure after the Maryland Public Service Commission found its previous structure discriminated against larger homes.

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But the project quickly ran into problems as the price continued to climb as Oracle submitted change orders and the utility relied heavily on vendors flown in from across the country, according to board meetings.

In February, the board voted unanimously to hire an independent firm to investigate the problems and procure the system. The board has also suspended additional spending pending the utility’s analysis of whether it would be more cost-effective to switch to another software company.

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Reid said Project Cornstone provided “accurate and timely invoices.” The additional costs, she said, were “normal” for such a large project and were “never considered or presented as part of the project budget,” according to a February memo she wrote to the board.

Del. Alfred C. Carr Jr. (D-Montgomery), of the state of Maryland, who follows WSSC Water closely, said the utility has had “serious spending overruns” in the past, even though its customers are paying nearly double the water rates they would at Fairfax County.

When asked about the commissioners Reid wants to remove, Carr said, “They’re doing their jobs. They provide the oversight they should be.”

Monika Mathur contributed to this report.

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