Three Democratic sources say an Amherst lawyer who donated almost $25,000 to the party organization over the last five years has the inside track to serve as the newest commissioner on the Erie County Water Authority.
Mark S. Carney and his law firm gave $24,950 to the Erie County Democratic Committee and to party Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner's own political fund. Carney and his law firm parceled thousands more to various Democratic candidates and groups since March 2013. Carney gave to candidates of other parties, too.
Democratic Party leaders, the sources said, prefer Carney over two other applicants: Rhonda A. Ricks, a Buffalo businesswoman, and Thomas E. Jaeger, a retired architect from Orchard Park. Neither is a Democrat.
Democratic leaders need backing from the Legislature's Democratic caucus to install Carney. But unanimous support appears unlikely.
After reading a Buffalo News article about the golden parachute that current Water Authority commissioners gave Executive Director Earl L. Jann Jr., Democratic Legislator Thomas A. Loughran says he might break from his party's leadership on the selection.
Loughran said he wants to disrupt the way the Authority has long been used – as a patronage asset squeezed by the major parties. He argues that it's time to end the well-worn practice of selecting commissioners based on party preference.
Some other Democratic lawmakers said they, too, want a commissioner who agrees the Water Authority needs reform. The lawmakers will pose questions to that effect when interviewing the applicants in a public forum Thursday.
"Honestly, it has been political in nature," said Legislator Barbara Miller-Williams, D-Buffalo. "But that doesn't mean we have to do business as usual. There's always a possibility of changing and doing things differently."
Legislator Patrick B. Burke, D-Buffalo, said he's inclined to vote for Carney, because "he's a pretty capable guy."
"But I need assurances that there's going to be changes at the Water Authority," he said, "because I think the whole thing stinks."
The Water Authority is a $70 million agency that pumps water to some 550,000 people in Buffalo's suburbs and provides the parties with patronage jobs to dispense. For decades, Republicans and Democrats have taken turns selecting commissioners to serve on the three-member board that governs the agency.
The Democrats took control of the Erie County Legislature this year, and it's their turn to have a two-thirds majority on the board. Once they hold control, the Democrats will take the lion's share of the patronage.
The Water Authority's current board chairman, former Amherst Highways Superintendent Robert Anderson, is a Republican whose term expires at the end of April.
Ahead of the takeover, the Republican commissioners who currently oversee the agency protected their Republican-appointed executive director by giving him a contract in January. Water Authority customers would have to pay Jann $300,000 to $400,000 if Democrats fired him without cause this year.
Loughran said the pact probably succeeded in protecting Jann because it would be too costly to let him go this year. Other Democrats were outraged as well.
"This is a public authority," County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz, whose brother once held a Water Authority job, said days ago. "The fees that are paying for that golden parachute are paid for by the ratepayers of the district. There should be no golden parachutes, whether it's Earl Jann or whoever it is."
Also last week, Assemblywoman Monica P. Wallace, D-Lancaster, introduced legislation that would bar all public authorities in New York from giving at-will appointees more than three months of severance pay.
“At a time when rates are going up, Water Authority customers expect that those increased rates will go toward infrastructure and water-quality improvements,” said Wallace, a Water Authority customer herself. “Instead, they’re going toward an appointee’s severance package. That is wrong."
Two Democratic officials have a significant voice in the Democratic selection. One is Zellner, chairman of the Erie County Democratic Committee.
"I know Mark very well," Zellner said when The News asked him whether Mark Carney is his pick among the three citizens who have applied. But Zellner refused to say whether he has a favorite because, he said, the choice belongs to the County Legislature.
The Legislature chairman, Democrat Peter Savage of Buffalo, will put forth a nominee after gaining assurances the nominee will get enough votes. Like Zellner, Savage refused to say whether he favors Carney.
But three sources close to the selection process say the word has spread within the Democratic caucus that Zellner and Savage want Carney for the part-time job, which pays $22,500 a year. The sources asked to remain unidentified, in part because the Legislature has yet to interview the candidates.
Aside from the generosity he has shown the Democratic Party, Carney is the only Democrat among the three people who applied for the post. He doesn't downplay the contributions he's made but points out that most have gone to judicial candidates, and lawyers often donate to friends running for the bench. A brother is a judge and his wife, Mary Carney, is a Family Court judge.
Carney said he doesn't have a general opinion about whether the authority is well-run or not, but said he wants to see a more transparent agency that always follows New York's Sunshine Laws.
And as for Jann's contract? "The timing of it would seem somewhat suspect," he said. "You gave this man a contract after it's obvious there will be a change in leadership ...
"You have to look at that and say it was reactive rather than proactive."
The other candidates are Ricks, a Republican, a developer and a former contract employee for LPCiminelli's Buffalo schools reconstruction project; and Jaeger, of Orchard Park, a retired architect from Kideney Architects and currently a board member for the Erie County Conservative Party.
Ricks told The News that she has the qualifications to be a commissioner and, if installed, would look for more efficient ways for the agency to operate. She did not feel strongly about the Jann contract, saying contracts have been given to other executive directors, and she was not there when the decisions were made.
Jaeger, however, thought the Jann contract could be seen as the watershed moment that spurs change.
"I would just hope my voice would be one for common sense," he said. And if he joins the commission and someday decides on the hiring of a new executive director, he hopes "the next go-round would have a more deliberate objective of trying to remove some of the politics."
If Savage, the Legislature chairman, cannot obtain the Democratic votes needed to install Carney, or any nominee, he could look to the Republican side of the aisle for support. But if he can't get the necessary six votes, current Republican Commissioner Robert Anderson would remain on the board until a replacement is named.
News Staff Reporter Sandra Tan contributed to this report.