Maryland officials on Thursday named the 13 individuals who will help decide the future of the Baltimore area’s water and wastewater system by serving on a task force convened by the General Assembly.
By late January, the task force will deliver its recommendations to legislators in Annapolis, stating how the critical infrastructure, which is largely managed by Baltimore City, ought to be governed in the future. From there, legislators will pick up the baton.
According to a news release, Baltimore Comptroller Bill Henry was nominated by Mayor Brandon Scott to serve as chairperson of the task force, which also includes local public works officials, a former Maryland secretary of the environment, two state legislators and the president of a union representing some city and county water workers, among others.
The task force comes after years of debates about the shared infrastructure, punctuated by demographic change that grew Baltimore County as the city shrank. The city controls most of the key infrastructure and handles maintenance and capital improvements, while the county pays a share of the cost to use the system.
Recent infrastructure issues have brought fresh urgency to the subject, including serious pollution problems at the city’s two wastewater plants. Persistent problems with water billing, which is run by the city, have also shaped the discussion.
The group has been tasked with considering a 2021 study jointly commissioned by the city and Baltimore County, which recommended increased regional cooperation, and pointed to other models, such as the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (recently renamed WSSC Water), which handles water and wastewater services for Prince George’s and Montgomery counties collectively.
Scott and Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. nominated one current and one former WSSC Water general manager to serve on the Baltimore task force.
As the bill that would establish the task force moved through the General Assembly, with the support of Democrats Scott and Olszewski, along with Democrac leaders in the legislature, it attracted some concerns from local advocacy groups.
The groups, including Food and Water Watch, Blue Water Baltimore and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, expressed concern about how regionalizing the water system could result in the majority-Black city losing control over its most valuable assets, with its majority-white suburbs gaining more say.
The coalition pushed for the task force to explicitly include representatives for low-income ratepayers and representatives from two different labor unions with involved workers: the City Union of Baltimore and the Baltimore County Federation of Public Employees.
“We applaud Mayor Brandon Scott for appointing a labor union representative to the Task Force, but we are disappointed low-income ratepayers were not given a direct seat at the table,” said Mary Grant, the Public Water for All campaign director at the nonprofit Food and Water Watch, in a news release Thursday.
The advocacy groups and unions also proposed that the task force be given significantly more time and money to issue its decision, and to be compelled to consider public input and study the racial and economic effects of changing who controls the city’s water infrastructure.
“[City Union of Baltimore] members have worked in service of the Baltimore region to deliver water and wastewater services for decades, often at great risk to themselves and their co-workers,” the union’s president, Antoinette Ryan-Johnson, also wrote in the release. “We have concerns that this task force will recommend changes that could wrest control of the most valuable asset of Baltimore City and its residents away from those who have paid the highest price to build and maintain it.”
In Annapolis earlier this year, legislators balked at the coalition’s suggestions, saying that the task force arrangements had already been carefully negotiated by leaders in Baltimore County and Baltimore City.
At a news conference last month, several of the advocacy groups, together with two Baltimore City Council members, had expressed concerns about a lack of transparency surrounding the task force.
Although the General Assembly legislation became law in late April, it had remained unclear when the task force members and meeting schedule would be announced. Advocates learned more when Baltimore City’s Department of Public Works put out a call for a contractor to help staff the task force, which included a plan with four scheduled meetings of the body, in September and October.
”Since the emergency legislation passed, the process for selecting task force members and scheduling public meetings has been murky, raising fears that the ultimate goal is to drive through unpopular and undemocratic changes that threaten the viability and value of the city’s most valuable publicly owned asset,” reads a June news release from Food and Water Watch.
Earlier this week, Baltimore City Councilwoman Odette Ramos proposed a hearing about the task force before the City Council, but a hearing has yet to be scheduled.
The task force will include the following members:
- Named by Baltimore City Mayor Brandon Scott:
- Baltimore City Comptroller Bill Henry, task force chairperson
- Lester Davis, vice president and chief of staff of CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield and former deputy chief of staff to Baltimore Mayor Jack Young
- Jason Mitchell, former director of the Baltimore City Department of Public Works
- Patrick Moran, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 3
- Kishia L. Powell, general manager and CEO of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC Water)
- Named by Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.:
- Lauren Buckler, deputy director of the Baltimore County Department of Public Works & Transportation
- Carla A. Reid, former general manager of WSSC Water
- Robert M. Summers, former Maryland secretary of the environment
- Named by Gov. Wes Moore:
- Timothy Barr, managing director of water/wastewater at Maryland Environmental Service
- Jessica Medicus, environmental manager of Bay Associates Environmental Inc.
- Named by Senate President Bill Ferguson:
- Sen. Cory McCray of District 45, deputy majority whip
- Named by Speaker of the House Adrienne A. Jones:
- Del. Dana Stein of District 11B, vice chair of the Environment and Transportation Committee
- Named by the chair of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, Howard County Executive Calvin Ball:
- Yosef Kebede, director of the Howard County Department of Public Works and the former water and wastewater bureau chief at the Baltimore Department of Public Works.