Travel by city's water chief questioned

The head of Baltimore's water system spent 35 days attending conferences in the past year, many of them out of state, records show. The travel has raised concerns among some city officials, who say Water and Wastewater chief Rudy Chow is needed here to focus on issues of crumbling infrastructure and erroneous bills.

Chow on Wednesday defended his attendance at 11 conferences, including eight out-of-state trips, as positive for the city. He said he learns from other jurisdictions and often holds up Baltimore's recent progress as a model for other cities.

"Just because I am traveling doesn't mean I am not focusing on work that needs to be done," he said. "By traveling to these different places, having these so-called professional affiliations, we can gain the insight of how other people are doing their business. ...

"We are among the most sought-after organizations in the utility world due to our transformational changes," Chow said. "People in our industry want to hear from us."

Among other trips, Chow traveled to Anaheim, Calif., in August of last year for the American Public Works Association Congress. In October, he went to New Orleans to give a presentation at the Water Environment Federation Technical Exhibit and Conference.

And he traveled twice to Chicago for conferences, with plans for a third trip next month. The city's spending board approved $3,000 for that trip Wednesday.

Chow's trips became a subject of scrutiny at the Board of Estimates meeting when Baltimore Comptroller Joan M. Pratt questioned several of his agency's expenses. "Mr. Chow goes on a lot of travel for speaking conferences, and that information should be shared with the citizens of Baltimore," Pratt said. "It is at taxpayers' expense."

Chow has won praise as an innovative manager who is making improvements since joining Baltimore City government 21/2 years ago. But Pratt and some others pointed to the city's frequent water main breaks and erroneous water bills as evidence that Chow should spend more time here focused on day-to-day issues.

"I like it best when he's at home," said Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke.

Clarke said she has "a lot of respect" for Chow and believes he has taken steps to improve the troubled system. "But we have a long way to go," she said.

Chow has been reimbursed about $8,500 for travel expenses, records show. The city also paid at least $4,000 in registration fees for the various conferences, which can range from about $200 to about $1,000. Some of Chow's travel was paid for by outside entities, city officials said.

Kevin Harris, spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, said the administration is working to strike the "right balance between the need to have people travel and advocate on behalf of the city while taking steps to minimize costs to citizens."

Harris said Chow "has led in promoting several innovative reforms to our sewer system" that will bring down water billing and infrastructure costs. "It's not surprising that because of this leadership there is interest in learning more about what we are doing here in Baltimore which requires him to leave the city from time to time," Harris said.

Chow, who makes $132,000 annually, joined city government in 2011. The next year, the city's auditor found that the Department of Public Works overcharged thousands of water customers by at least $9 million. Exorbitant bills were especially infuriating to citizens as decades-old water lines cracked underground with regularity, sending water streaming down streets while disrupting traffic and sometimes gas and electric services. At the same time, the city has raised water rates by 42 percent over three years.

In response, Chow implemented what he has called "corrective actions" — part of a broader, long-term effort to address billing problems attributed to faulty water meters, outdated technology, human error and, in some neighborhoods, fabricated meter readings.

At the Board of Estimates Pratt noted that not all of Chow's travel has been approved by the panel. She also questioned the agency's hiring of consultants who are paid more than city workers, as well as the creation of several new administrative positions that pay in excess of $100,000.

Councilmen Nick Mosby and Edward Reisinger said they had not evaluated Chow's travel. But both praised Chow for his efforts to address Baltimore's water system troubles.

"Mr. Chow has always been a very high professional and very knowledgeable, trying to think outside the box when it comes to our aging infrastructure," Mosby said.

Reisinger said he's not opposed to travel by government workers and sees conferences and workshops as opportunities to improve services. "I support when he goes to the conferences, if he learns something," Reisinger said, "if there's something to take back."

Councilman Carl Stokes said the outward appearance of the travel might not sit well with some Baltimore residents, especially those who have received erroneous water bills in recent months. The best response going forward is for the agency to be completely transparent about the expenses and purpose of the trips, Stokes said.

"It's the perception — I am not saying it's right or wrong," Stokes said. "I don't know the ins or outs of the travel. … When people are threatened by fraudulent or very high water bills, and then to raise the water bill double-digits every year, it would seem to many there should be belt-tightening in discretionary spending or travel that is not necessary."

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