Conaway notifies city of plans to sue over water bills

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Just days after Comptroller Joan M. Pratt filed suit against the city, another prominent Baltimore official has filed notice of his intention to take City Hall to court.

Baltimore Circuit Court Clerk Frank M. Conaway has formally notified the city of his plans to file a class-action lawsuit over erroneous charges to residents by the municipal water billing system.

"People have been overcharged and taken advantage of," Conaway said. "People have lost their homes. It's horrible."

Conaway's attorney, Neal M. Janey — a former city solicitor — sent a formal "Notice of Claims" letter to current City Solicitor George A. Nilson, alerting him of plans for the suit, which he said arises from the failure to collect water bills owed by businesses and nonprofit organizations even as some residents are being forced from their homes for overdue bills.

In response, Nilson accused the men of taking legal actions as part of a publicity stunt.

"Mr. Janey and Mr. Conaway are making a habit of this," Nilson said in an email, referring to recent suit filed by Janey that accuses the city of discriminating against minority contractors. "It seems to be a disease (or something in the water) that affects some elected officials and former City Solicitors in desperate need of public attention."

Pratt filed a lawsuit Friday seeking to stop Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's technology office from installing a new phone system for city offices, alleging that the administration used an "underhanded, illegal technique" to bypass the competitive bidding process. The law firm of Orioles owner Peter Angelos is handling the case pro bono.

A Rawlings-Blake spokesman accused Pratt of wasting city resources by engaging in a legal fight over a matter that should be handled through collaboration among the branches of city government. Spokesman Ryan O'Doherty also noted that an investigation by the city's inspector general — whose probe found apparent conflicts of interest and wasteful practices — did not produce findings of illegal activity.

Conaway said he's paying for his suit with his own money, and has "a number of residents already signed up." He said his suit will seek monetary damages. "I want people to be made whole," he said.

The court clerk has asked Baltimore's finance director, Harry E. Black, for the names and addresses of people who have had liens placed against their homes in the past two years over water bills.

"Hundreds of city homeowners have lost their homes because of $300 or $400 delinquent bills directly because of the aggressive actions by the city to collect revenues," Conaway said.

In August, Conaway first announced his plans for a class-action suit. He cited a Baltimore Sun article that reported the city had failed to collect more than $10 million in overdue water bills owed by corporations, nonprofits and government offices. The total included about $7 million owed by the bankrupt RG Steel in Sparrows Point.

O'Doherty said at the time that the city's finance and public works departments work "very hard to collect from delinquent accounts."

"The law department's working very aggressively to make sure that we're doing everything we can to retrieve what is owed," he said.

Conaway ran against Rawlings-Blake in the last mayoral election. He said his political opposition to the mayor played no role in his decision to sue.

"I'm very serious about this," Conaway said. "This has nothing to do with me running for mayor."

Conaway's legal action comes as the water system has been grappling to resolve problems identified in a city audit released in February. City officials acknowledged that they had overcharged 38,000 mostly residential customers by at least $4.2 million and issued refunds. The auditor has called for another $5 million in refunds.

The administration has outlined a broad, long-term effort to address billing problems attributed to faulty water meters, an outdated computer system, human error and, in some neighborhoods, meter readings allegedly fabricated by two employees who no longer work for the city.

luke.Broadwater@baltsun.com

twitter.com/lukebroadwater

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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