WASHINGTON — WSSC Water Commissioners decided not to renew their contract with General Manager and CEO Carla Reid. Her current contract expires on Dec. 31, 2022.
In a statement to WSSC Water employees, Reid acknowledges the commission "did vote not to renew my contract." She denies losing any managerial powers.
Reid had been at the company for more than 20 years, starting as a civil engineer, leaving the company in 2006, and then returning to act as CEO and general manager in 2016, according to the company website.
Internal WSSC Water emails obtained by WUSA9 reveal multiple disputes between senior management and commissioners appointed by Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. The emails show accusations of retaliatory behavior and misconduct regarding the selection and investigation into the contract of “Project Cornerstone.” According to WSSC Water, Project Cornerstone was a computer system activated in 2019 to “implement a new rate structure and a redesigned bill.”
In a statement to WSSC employees, Reid wrote, "I am so proud to have shattered the glass ceiling here at WSSC Water – working my way up every level of this organization to become the first female General Manager & CEO. But what I’m most proud of is you, H2O People, and the incredible support you have provided me over the last six-and-a-half years. Together, we have set out on a journey to world-class. With a renewed commitment to customer service and excellence, you have walked side by side with me on this journey – ensuring accountability to our Strategic Plan. Since my first day on the job, I have been committed to building accountability and trust among all H2O People, our customers and stakeholders. Accountability and trust mean everything to me and are both key to the mission that I will humbly fulfill for as long as I remain your General Manager & CEO."
WSSC Water's decision comes one week after Commissioner Chris Lawson also announced he was leaving the company amid accusations revolving around a conflict of interest when choosing the utility's billing system.
Lawson wrote a letter of resignation obtained by WUSA9. It reads in part:
"It is true that I have a client who participates in the Cornerstone contract. When the original contract was approved, there were no vendors named at that time under the Basic Ordering Agreement. It was understood that the vendors would be selected from an approved list of approximately 27 companies, chosen by the IT department evaluation of offerors. At the point in which management requested more revenue to continue with the development of Cornerstone, it was an honest mistake not to recognize that at that point, the client was listed. I certainly didn't do so because I was going to get something in return. Last, I was informed today that a Commissioner has lodged a complaint with the State Ethics Board specifically against me. It made mention of other vendors past and present that are clients of concern. That is clearly a lie. I'm sure that if the Commissioner honestly thought that he/she would have quickly made mention of client names. Another unnecessary evil. But at least with the Ethics Board I will have an honest chance to set the record straight. Thank you again for the opportunity to serve. I wish you and the staff all the best."
Several customers WUSA9 has spoken with talk about long wait times on the phone — in the past and currently -- to get answers from WSSC Water about their bills.
Customers have also taken to social media with a thread on NextDoor, with more than 100 comments, complaining of disputed and unexplained high water bills for a time period ranging from several years ago to the present day.
WSSC Water told WUSA9 that it is willing to work with customers to reduce their bills, sometimes as much as 50%. They also shared a chart showing the utility's call answer rate and wait time had been improving consistently since March 2022.
Two WSSC Water managers, both in high positions, agreed to speak to WUSA9 with their faces hidden and voices altered to avoid harm to their careers. Both managers said WSSC Water’s billing system - internally labeled “Project Cornerstone” - is a "failure," and spoke to the subsequent, alleged causes for the high bills and poor customer service.
"I think it starts with the billing system itself," one of the managers said. "We spent again, over $100 million on a billing system that doesn't service the customer. We've talked to other organizations and they have spent a fraction of those costs, and have all the things that can assist the customer without calling into customer service."
One of the managers, speaking anonymously, also shared details on the conflict of interest allegations.
"When we talk about Cornerstone we have to talk about the relationships at WSSC,” he said. "Currently, we've got an active commissioner who is doing business with one of the vendors from Cornerstone and who did not disclose that information who's been approving contracts for that particular vendor. And we're aware of some of these vendors sitting on the boards of these different organizations that belong not only to the commissioner but as well as other employees who may have other businesses or spouses who may have other businesses that these particular vendors sit on the boards of these different employees of WSSC Water."
After listening to the apologies from top-level managers to the board in meetings over the course of the year, it's clear that WSSC Water is aware of its past customer service problem.
"I do want to start with an apology," said WSSC Water Deputy General Manager Monica Johnson.
WSSC Water Chief of Staff Crystal Knight-Lee added her own "public apology as customer service director," while Reid said she wanted to "once again apologize to our customers."
WUSA9 asked WSSC Water to have any one of the managers sit down and explain what their own fellow managers said about alleged flaws in their system. Multiple requests were denied. Instead, in a statement, utility spokesperson Lyn Riggins wrote:
“We pride ourselves on delivering exceptional customer service, but we have clearly missed the mark when it comes to our call wait times. To be completely transparent, we have never had that many delinquent customer accounts at one time, which was driving the extremely high call volumes. We know COVID-19 is responsible for the economic uncertainty many of our customers face.”