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Minority leader says top Water Authority job should have standards

One County Legislature leader is calling on the Erie County Water Authority to eliminate language that makes it possible for politically connected people with no public utility management credentials to serve as the agency's executive director.

A proposal to change the job description for the Water Authority's top administrator comes after authority Board Chairman Earl L. Jann Jr. stated his interest in giving up his board seat, which pays $22,500, in favor of the executive director's job, which pays more than $145,000.

"This is a reform that only makes sense after what we're hearing about in Flint, Michigan," Minority Leader Thomas Loughran said last week.

The Erie County Water Authority is responsible for supplying clean water to more than half a million people.

Jann, a former pharmaceutical sales rep and a longtime Marilla supervisor, has served on the authority board for six years. He has contributed more than $10,000 to local Republican committees and candidates since 2006. He's contributed $2,279 since the start of last year, including a $1,500 gift to the Erie County Republican Committee Chairman's Club in July.

Whoever controls the Erie County Legislature – currently the Republicans – controls the top jobs at the authority. Last year, the Water Authority board refused to reappoint former Executive Director Robert Gaylord, a Democrat, to a second term. Gaylord was a former banking administrator and Collins town supervisor.

After county Water Authority Chairman Earl Jann, a Republican, said he wants the agency's top administrative job, a Democratic leader has proposed tightening standards for the post. (Chris Caya/Courtesy of WBFO News)

Loughran, a Democrat, said politics may play a role in a candidate's selection, but it shouldn't be the only role.

He wants the job description for the authority's executive director to eliminate a key phrase that makes it possible for people with no engineering or public administration background to get named to the executive director post.

The current job description states under "acceptable experience and training" that the candidate must have 10 years of experience "in the administration of a large scale municipal or private water production and distribution system." The candidate should also have a college degree in hydraulic engineering, business or public administration.

But the job description doesn't end there. A phrase at the end of the "acceptable experience" description adds "... or any equivalent combination of experience and training sufficient to indicate ability to do the work."

That "loophole" language should be struck, Loughran said.

His proposal was sent to committee Thursday. Even if it passes, the Legislature has no ability to require the Water Authority to make any changes to its job description. The Legislature, which appoints Water Authority commissioners, can only urge the authority board to make the change.

Loughran said that Water Authority reform is a slow process, but a public discussion about the need for further reform is worth having. He pointed out that when he first started as a legislator, Water Authority commissioners got cars and credit cards, which they don't receive now.

"I would hope to get the support of all my colleagues," Loughran said of his resolution to eliminate loophole language. "It just makes so much sense."

Though Jann, a history major, has no formal training in water operations, he has pointed to his role as Water Authority chairman and in improving employee relations at the authority, championing a more systematic approach to replacing old and deteriorating water lines, and pushing for much-needed technology upgrades.

Commercial water fees rose significantly under Jann's leadership, as have infrastructure charges for all Water Authority customers. Jann previously stated that the money would raise millions for much-needed construction projects to improve the aging water system.

Also on Thursday, the Legislature approved a new Water Authority commissioner, Karl J. Simmeth Jr., now that Jann's term has expired and he has not requested another term.

Simmeth, a community liaison who works for Republican Assemblyman David DiPietro, is a former Boston town councilman. The Town of Boston resident is also an assistant buildings supervisor for Erie County Medical Center and holds an associate's degree in business administration. He serves on the Board of Managers for Erie County Sewer District No. 3.

Since 2010, Simmeth and his wife have contributed nearly $3,000 to Republican candidates and local leaders, and the Erie County Republican Committee.

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