The golden parachute the Erie County Water Authority recently gave its executive director has put the agency back under the spotlight.
Erie County legislators, as usual, expressed their disapproval.
"A failure," Buffalo Democrat Patrick Burke said of the authority's leadership.
"Terrible," said Lancaster Democrat John Bruso.
"Offensive," said City of Tonawanda Republican Kevin Hardwick.
But if history is any guide, the County Legislature will do little about it.
"We put our face down in our hands, and we sigh," said Hardwick.
Legislators have neither the sweeping authority, nor strong political incentive, to change a political patronage machine that rewards party donors with high-paying posts and lucrative contracts.
- The rules that govern the Water Authority are set by the state, not at the local level.
- Legislators have only the authority to appoint the agency's three commissioners, and even then, they are only allowed to vote on the nominee recommended by the Legislature chairman.
- The county political party chairs – especially the head of whichever party controls the County Legislature – has sway over who gets the authority's top administrative and board positions.
Not coincidentally, these same party leaders also determine how much campaign resources to give legislators running for re-election. They discourage legislative efforts to change how the Water Authority does business because political parties directly benefit from the patronage system that exists now.
Consider what happened when the news media reported last year that Earl Jann, a Republican party donor and former chairman of the Water Authority board, lobbied for and received support to be named executive director of the Water Authority, which at that time paid $145,000. Jann's background was in pharmaceutical sales. He's also previously served as Marilla town supervisor.
Legislator Thomas Loughran of Amherst responded by calling on the Water Authority to eliminate job-description language that makes it possible for politically connected people with no public utility or business management credentials to get hired.
"When I put that resolution in, my party and the Republicans – they went nuts," he said.
That resolution has languished in committee for nearly a year. Other legislators point out Loughran's resolution would carry no legal weight, and none of his colleagues has pursued any avenue to improve upon it.
"They don't want to hear about any reform," Loughran said.
Hardwick responded that the Legislature lacks clout because of the way the Water Authority is structured.
"We can't direct them to do anything," he said. "We can request them to do something or we can lobby the state to make the change. It's a state authority even though it's the Erie County Water Authority."
One of the few places legislators have direct influence over the authority is in the appointment of commissioners. The Water Authority's Board of Commissioners consists of two members from the same party as whichever group controls the Legislature majority, and one member from the party in the minority.
The Water Authority's current board chairman, former Amherst Highways Superintendent Robert Anderson, is a Republican whose term expires at the end of April. The Legislature is interviewing three Democratic candidates this week to fill his board seat.
Legislator Barbara Miller-Williams, D-Buffalo, said she sees this as an opportunity to ask "tough questions" of the candidates.
Majority Leader April Baskin, D-Buffalo, echoed Miller-Williams.
"The interview process is good for democracy," she said. "That's my only focus and my only interest at this point."
Bruso, the Democrat from Lancaster, is chairman of the committee that will interview the Water Authority commissioner candidates. He said he's looking for a candidate who doesn't believe in providing golden parachutes for authority appointees.
The Buffalo News reported last week that Jann signed a three-year contract in January that guarantees his income through 2020. The Republican-appointee agreed to the deal just days after Democrats took control of the Erie County Legislature, a precursor to Democratic control of the Water Authority later this year.
"I'm looking for leadership," Bruso said, "because quite frankly, I don't believe that was right, what was done."
Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo, C-West Seneca, said that like most members in the minority, he has little say over who gets named commissioner because the Democratic Party has settled on its own front-runner. But he said he will still put in his own nomination, as a representative for the Conservative Party, for whoever is most professionally qualified for the commissioner's job.
"There are people who have actual qualifications," he said.
But Hardwick noted only Legislature Chairman Peter Savage can bring a candidate's name to the floor for a full Legislature vote.
Savage said he's looking for someone who demonstrates leadership and managerial expertise. He also said he intends to examine candidates' qualifications and ask questions about their management philosophy, their perspective on how the authority should best be managed.
"The more experience the better," said Savage, D-Buffalo.
Specialty expertise can be developed but leadership skills should come with the person appointed to the job, he said.
But when asked how much influence Erie County Democratic Party Chairman Jeremy Zellner will have in choosing a nominee, Savage became evasive. Instead, he simply said the next commissioner would be voted on by the Legislature's 11 members.
Beyond appointing commissioners, legislators said they can request Water Authority leaders to appear more frequently before the governing body. Lorigo also said he intends to research how water providers in other counties operate to see if the county can adopt a different model for providing clean, safe drinking water to county residents.
Finally, legislators say they can submit requests to the state, speak to local members of their state delegation, communicate their desires directly with Water Authority commissioners, and adopt resolutions supporting existing state bills focused on reforming Water Authority operations.
That's not a lot of leverage, they admit, but it's something.
"That's the problem with these authorities," said Hardwick, a Canisius College professor who teaches a course on public administration. "Change has to come from Albany."
One bill some legislators are considering supporting is a proposal from Assemblywoman Monica Wallace, D-Lancaster.
She wants to change the law that governs public authorities in New York so that public authority employees who serve at will, such as Jann, would be able to collect no more than three months of severance pay.
In addition, Burke, a Buffalo Democrat running for State Assembly, said that if he's elected, he will review state laws regarding public authorities to dismantle the ability for political appointees to "rig the system" when it comes to Water Authority leadership.
"At the very least, we have to start speaking about it, because it's not right," Burke said. "Clearly, there is a system failure in this."
But political observers point out that such state bills face an uphill battle in the State Legislature. Wallace's proposal, for instance, has no sponsor in the Republican-controlled State Senate.
Loughran, meanwhile, said he's not giving up at the local level. He sent a letter to Erie County Personnel Commissioner David Palmer last month asking that his office perform a job audit for the Water Authority's executive director position. Those findings could be sent to the state oversight body that has authority to set minimum qualifications for the job.
"Something has to be done," he said.