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Editorial: Water Authority's appointment of Jann shows contempt for ratepayers

Had enough yet?

The ethical crooks at the Erie County Water Authority on Thursday surreptitiously named an unqualified but politically connected candidate to lead the agency at a salary of $145,000 a year. It’s standard operating procedure for this furtive organization.

Indifferent to principle and dismissive of openness, the Water Authority is a political anachronism. It exists for no good reason, but it serves the penchant of politicians to play favorites. It’s time to disband it and hold accountable the politicians who think nothing of peppering it with incompetence.
Here’s what happened: Earlier this year, the chairman of the Water Authority, Earl L. Jann Jr., expressed interest in the executive director’s post. He was chairman because of patronage and he apparently figured he could ride the same filthy wave into the top job. His qualifications were his previous experience as a pharmaceutical sales rep and supervisor of the Town of Marilla.

That, if the Water Authority’s Board of Commissioners is to be believed, is all it takes to manage a $73 million operation charged with delivering safe, clean water to more than half a million customers. However, this job is about more than just turning knobs.

Jann does have the kind of qualification that matters in this type of deal: political largess. He has contributed $10,000 to GOP committees and candidates since 2006.

The whole procedure is a sham, and it’s time for voters to hold Erie County legislators accountable for the actions of the board members, who are appointed by the Legislature. State lawmakers also should rewrite the legislation that permits authorities such as this to be run so secretively and unprofessionally.

It gets worse, because the authority chose to sneak in Jann’s appointment without notifying the public. A reporter from The Buffalo News asked on Thursday if the appointment of an executive director would occur at that day’s meeting. She was told the matter wasn’t on the agenda.

But moments later it was, allowing this disreputable board to move ahead on an appointment whose inappropriateness is documented by the slippery way in which it was conducted. What other conclusion is possible?

The appointment was made by the three-member board that includes Chairman Robert Anderson, Vice Chairman Jerome D. Schad and Treasurer Karl J. Simmeth Jr. Membership is in the control of whichever political party dominates the Erie County Legislature which, in this case, is Republican. And that’s delicious.

Only a few months ago, Republicans on the Legislature were bellyaching about a financial deal between County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz and Erie County Medical Center. In that, they had a point, but it’s telling that their interest in ethics and good management stops when the subject is their influence over the Water Authority.

Not that Democrats behave any differently. That’s the problem. The authority is organized specifically to allow politicians to grease the wheels for their anointed ones.

This authority loves to operate in the dark. Just recently, it refused to disclose why it hired the Phillips Lytle law firm at a cost to ratepayers of $400 to $435 an hour. The information is indisputably public. Yet the secrecy persists.

The New York State Comptroller’s Office needs to audit the authority, not just for its finances but its management practices. Ultimately, though, the authority needs to be abolished. A county department, professionally run, can do the work and make legislators more directly accountable.

They wouldn’t mind that, would they?

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