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Back in February, LL detailed a horribly complicated but tremendously juicy jurisdictional squabble over the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority. Long story short: The suburbs, which hold five of 11 seats on the WASA board, were pissed that District had asserted control over the agency’s finances and passed a law granting hiring preferences to District residents. To settle things, suburban congressional interests had nearly tacked a rider onto a federal appropriations bill late last year.
The meddling isn’t over.
Maryland Congressman Chris Van Hollen introduced a bill last week that inserts language into the Home Rule Act that explicitly takes WASA out from under the CFO’s oversight. It’s the sort of bigfooting that the District hates, and usually the District’s congressional delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, finds a way to make these things go away.
Not this time, though: Norton isn’t going to be on the District’s side. Yesterday, in a congressional hearing, Norton revealed she had sent a pair of letters to Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray urging them to ease their hard line on WASA governance, citing her efforts to balance jurisdictional interests when the agency was established back in the mid-1990s.
“I write now to alert you that congressional action is imminent if recent Council bills remain in effect,” Norton wrote on March 14. “In the interest of maintaining WASA as a D.C. agency, I urge you to take the necessary steps that have allowed the Council to have continuing oversight of WASA as a D.C. agency.”
Outside the hearing yesterday, City Administrator Dan Tangherlini, also a member of the WASA board, said he still holds out hope that the dispute can be resolved without congressional intervention. “The [Van Hollen] approach is different than one we’d advocate,” he said. “We’d prefer that changes come through the D.C. Council rather than Congress.” Such changes to the Home Rule charter, he says, are not uncommon—-the council, for instance, did so when authorizing the mayoral schools takeover.
Van Hollen told LL he doesn’t see that solving anything: “What we’re all looking for is clarity. The only way you can clarify federal law is through congressional action.”
As for overturning the District-resident job preferences, Tangherlini says, “That’s something we’re going to talk to the council about.” The draft fiscal 2009 Budget Support Act submitted to the council last month includes a provision to exempt WASA from any job preferences.
At the hearing yesterday, Van Hollen said, “We need to put the conflicts regarding governance behind us.” Republican committee members Tom Davis (Va.) and Kenny Marchant (Texas) submitted statements in support of Van Hollen’s bill; suburban reps—including Fairfax County Executive Tony Griffin; Timothy Firestine, Montgomery County’s chief administrative officer; and Jacqueline F. Brown, Prince George’s County’s chief administrative officer—also spoke in support of it.
For her part, Norton didn’t question the suburban board members about the governance dispute during the hearing. Afterward, she told LL that congressional intervention is permissible in this instance because WASA is not a “true home rule agency.” Rather, she said, it’s more akin to an interjurisdictional entity like the Metro board. “The only difference,” she said, “is that this was once a D.C. agency.”
And, Norton says, her stand on Van Hollen’s bill doesn’t reflect any attenuation of her usual fieriness. “If it’s a home rule issue,” she says, “I may go down, but I’ll go down fighting.”