Posted on February 9, 2005

Race and Contracts at Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission

Washington Post, Feb. 6

Infighting over race and contracts at the Washington area’s largest water and sewer utility has impeded business there and wasted millions of dollars in public funds. As officials within the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission slug it out over how to parcel out millions of dollars of contracts, the agency’s 1.6 million customers in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties have been the losers, as The Post’s Matthew Mosk and Lena H. Sun documented last Sunday. The strife at WSSC has contributed to rising rates, interfered with the maintenance of pipes and, in one case, jeopardized the safety of drinking water. It is intolerable and must end.

Last week WSSC moved to fire its chief minority business officer, Shaaron W. Phillips, who has held her position since 2000. In one instance, a contract to procure a crucial chemical additive was delayed because Ms. Phillips was pushing for the inclusion of black-owned subcontractors; as the deal was structured, however, they would do no work. In another, the utility is facing a $1.5 million expenditure to catch up on routine maintenance because Ms. Phillips held up a contract for a white-owned firm that was unable to find a minority-owned subcontractor.

Ms. Phillips says disingenuously that the move is “a complete shock”; she also told The Post that “true change” to promote minority contractors is “messy.” In fact, Ms. Phillips herself appears to be responsible for part of the messiness at WSSC and for embroiling the agency in politics. According to a memo by her supervisor, Ms. Phillips lobbied for state legislation that would enhance her own influence and salary — even helping to draft the bill introduced in Annapolis — in violation of WSSC policy that prohibits employees from mixing the agency’s business with their personal gain. Separately, she cultivated an alliance with Prince George’s County Executive Jack B. Johnson for the purpose of widening her influence and advancing her agenda.