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Editorial: Portrait of patronage at Erie County Water Authority

This can’t be what people mean when they say government should be run more like a business. Members of the Republican-controlled Erie County Water Authority gave their unqualified golden boy at the Erie County Water Authority a contract entitling him to a payout of up to $400,000 if Democrats oust him from the job.

With that, they outfitted Earl L. Jann Jr. with a golden parachute and their ratepayers with a concrete overcoat. Few in power seem to care.

It’s only the latest evidence of the county’s dereliction of duty at the Water Authority, an incestuous nest of patronage where competence matters less than who you know and who is in charge. There, among other places, county leaders routinely grant themselves dispensation from the requirements of good government in order to reward their well cared for pets. The deal the authority gave Jann is Exhibit A.

Their first requirement of the new executive director is that he have no expertise in running so specific and complex operation, but be nonetheless willing to accept a salary of $153,600 a year.

Check.

Jann is a former pharmaceutical sales rep and longtime supervisor of the Town of Marilla. The closest he comes to any hint of expertise is having served as a commissioner of the Water Authority, a publicly funding agency with a $73 million budget. His new pay scale took effect last May.

Interestingly, his household has given about $16,000 to various Republican causes in New York since he was appointed a commissioner in 2011. As tribute, it’s paying off nicely.

Also important is to appoint the executive director in a surreptitious manner, thus signalling to ratepayers and constituents that you’re not really on their side.

Check.

The Water Authority board had been evading media inquiries about the executive director’s position, going so far as to issue a formal agenda that made no mention of the appointment. That was late on a Wednesday afternoon in May. By Thursday morning, the item had appeared on the agenda and Jann was hired, lack of qualifications intact.

Finally, it is necessary to coddle your unqualified appointee in the event that politics intervene, as it has. In November’s elections, Democrats won control of the Erie County Legislature. They could replace Republicans’ unqualified appointee with an unqualified appointee of their own. (They’ve done it in the past; this charade is bipartisan.)

Thus, Jann’s contract – which The Buffalo News obtained after filing a Freedom of Information request – vested him with golden parachute worth $300,000 to $400,000 if Democrats try to dump him this year. That money would be come out of the pockets of the authority’s ratepayers, who also happen to the constituents of county legislators.

Respect? Integrity? These people don’t care about that.

It’s startling that so many people care so little about their honor. But that’s the way it is in Erie County. Democrats and Republicans, alike, see the Water Authority as a kind of human resources slush fund where they can reward those who earn – or perhaps, buy – their favor.

County legislators make clear their commitment to this legal corruption through their refusal to change it. Consider how the authority fudges the qualifications for its leader. It says, earnestly, that the executive director should have “10 years of increasingly responsible and successful executive experience in the administration of a large-scale municipal or private water-distribution system.” Good so far.

It says that person should have graduated “from a college or university of recognized standing with major work in hydraulic engineering or business or public administration ...” Right on target.

And then it undoes it all with the final 16 words: “... or any equivalent combination of experience and training sufficient to indicate ability to do the work.” That’s the loophole that allows transparently unqualified candidates such as Jann to land the cushy job. Not by accident does it obviate everything before.

County Legislator Thomas A. Loughran has introduced a measure to strike that last part but, so far, the Amherst Democrat lacks the support to make it happen.

You lose, voters. Patronage wins.

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