Neel Left Utilities a Better Place ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY

February 11, 1993

During his decade as Anne Arundel County's utilities director, Tom Neel accomplished a minor miracle. He made water and sewer, those most mundane of public services, almost glamorous.

Hired by then-county executive O. James Lighthizer to rescue a failing utilities department, Mr. Neel did exactly that, cutting the annual number of sewage spills from more than 200 to less than five in relatively short time. He also cracked down on treatment plant permit violations and built up his department with trained personnel and state-of-the-art processes until it became a model. Dozens of awards poured in from, among others, the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the Water Pollution Control Federation and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

It wasn't just the plaques on the walls that made Mr. Neel's the "in" department. He inspired loyalty and a sense of mission in utilities workers. Somehow, he managed to make people who man pumping stations, lay water mains or answer customer complaints feel like they were doing something terribly important. One utilities employee says Mr. Neel preached the philosophy that they were all in the business of making clean water and thus saving lives. The workers believed; they were ready to follow him through fire.

Perhaps that is one reason why County Executive Robert R. Neall decided Mr. Neel had to go. Perhaps he asked him to retire to avoid risking a conflict of loyalties as he prepared to reorganize the utilities department. Some suspect this was the case.

If so, it is a poor rationale for getting rid of a capable manager. A better reason, the one the Neall administration gives, is that a professional who builds up a department, who believes every part of it is necessary, is not suited to dismantle it.

Many are skeptical of Mr. Neall's plan to merge utilities with public works. Considering how poorly they functioned when they were previously joined, such fears are justifiable. Time will tell how the executive intends to avoid the problems of the past.

This much is certain: If Mr. Neall can find a way to keep utilities employees from losing the sense of purpose they found during Mr. Neel's tenure, the chance that this reorganization will succeed can't help but be improved.

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