Fired a month ago as the chief of Anne Arundel County's landfills and sewage treatment plants, Tom Neel takes the helm today of a New Hampshire subsidiary of a national waste disposal firm.
Mr. Neel has been hired as president of Wheelabrator EOS, a Hampton, N.H.-based subsidiary of solid waste disposal giant Wheelabrator.
The company operates more than 100 water and sewage treatment plants for municipal governments and private industry nationwide. Recently, the company has begun purchasing municipal facilities as local governments nationwide turn more and more to private industry to provide public services.
County Executive Robert R. Neall asked Mr. Neel, who took over the county's eight sewage treatment plants and public water system in 1983, to resign as part of a reorganization of county government that will combine his Utilities Department with the Department of Public Works. Public Works Director Parker Andrews also was asked to leave.
News of Mr. Neel's departure saddened many who had worked with him since then-County Executive O. James Lighthizer hired him away from a Pennsylvania consulting firm to turn around what had been a troubled bureau within the Public Works Department. Mr. Neel is credited with organizing the county's eight sewage treatment plants and public water system into a national recognized utility, earning himself a reputation as a premier trouble shooter.
It was Mr. Neel the county executive turned to a year ago when the Maryland Department of the Environment ordered the county to clean up the Millersville Landfill, the county's primary trash facility, or shut it down. Bringing the landfill into compliance with state environmental laws, he directed construction of the county's first plastic-lined disposal area, which opened in the fall.
"I always said I slept better because Tom Neel is in charge" of the Utilities Department, said Del. Marsha Perry, a Crofton Democrat who launched her political career fighting for the cleanup of the Patuxent Sewage Treatment Plant. "I've lived through too many plant operators that made my life miserable."
Marvin Redding, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 582, which represents the county's blue-collar workers, said his union opposed Mr. Neel when he first took over the Department of Utilities. But over the years, "he proved us wrong," Mr. Redding said.
Although several well-qualified managers remain with the county, Mr. Neel's departure will leave a vacuum of leadership and expertise at the top, Mr. Redding said, adding that he has reservations about plans to recombine the Utilities and Public Works departments. Many workers fear the mismanagement that led to the separation 10 years ago will recur. Mr. Neel was among those recommending the very changes that cost him his job.
"Bob [Neall] decided he didn't want me there for whatever reason," Mr. Neel said. "I don't have any regrets. I created that department, but that doesn't mean you fit into all future plans."
Mr. Neel said he was familiar with the Wheelabrator division while he was with the county, and had even considered turning some county services over to the firm. During his tenure as utilities director, he did privatize the department's construction management and sludge disposal duties, some of which are managed by other Wheelabrator subsidiaries.
Mr. Neel said the county has no contracts with his new company.
The County Council has scheduled a hearing for tonight on Chairman David G. Boschert's bill prohibiting former county employees from lobbying the county for one year after leaving government service.
Mr. Neel said he will commute to his new job in New Hampshire, returning to his Davidsonville home on weekends.