The Erie County Water Authority has suffered some setbacks of late.
During the October storm, the authority's years-long refusal to install standby power risked service to Buffalo's populous suburbs. In January, the association representing Erie County's local governments expressed its concerns with the Water Authority. In March, an internal whistle-blower sparked a federal inquiry at the authority's laboratory.
So, will the Erie County Legislature this year still rubber-stamp the Democratic Party chairman's appointee to the water system's three-member governing board?
Most likely it will, answers Lancaster Democrat Kathy Konst, one of the legislators who refused to endorse the chairman's selection last year -- a jewelry store merchant who donates often to party causes.
Few Democratic lawmakers, Konst said, seem willing to stray from Chairman Leonard R. Lenihan's favorite -- Frank Swiatek. Swiatek, a businessman and former Cheektowaga supervisor, leads the Water Authority but would have to leave if the Legislature does not grant him another three-year term.
The part-time post pays $22,500 a year.
A Legislature committee Monday publicly interviewed two people who have expressed interest, Swiatek and Craig P. Marlatt of Williamsville, who heads the real estate development division for the firm Ross Wilson and Associates.
Marlatt arrived with no political pedigree to speak of but does possess some 25 years of work experience that would help him govern a water system.
"I have made my career planning, building and managing large-scale construction projects primarily for public clients," he said in a cover letter. "I have an understanding of the accountability required and the tremendous responsibility such a position demands."
Marlatt said he was motivated in part by the authority's performance during the October storm, but he has no agenda, he said, other than to help the organization.
"I'm not here to complain about being out of water," he said.
For decades, both major parties have used the Water Authority to keep some of their campaign foot soldiers employed. Even though Water Authority managers say the institution is not the patronage nest of old, the party bosses determine who sits as a commissioner, thereby injecting its bureaucracy into the political realm.
The Water Authority was set up that way more than 50 years ago, when it was decided that no more than two commissioners shall belong to the same political party.
"I don't say it loosely when I say the Water Authority is well-managed -- not perfect -- well managed," Swiatek said when he spoke to the committee Monday.
The system delivered 25 billion gallons of water last year to 550,000 residents; its financial health is excellent; and it has won awards from professional organizations, he said.
Swiatek said that when he joined the authority three years ago, he was told about the need for backup electrical generators, but officials said they had to save more money and make other modifications before they could be purchased and installed.
After the October storm, the plan to have major generators in place by the year 2012 was fast-tracked. Now officials figure they will have a standby generator at the major Sturgeon Point treatment plant by 2009.
It's a safe bet that Swiatek will be reappointed. Thomas A. Loughran, D-Amherst, who leads the Legislature committee that interviewed the two applicants, said he expects a majority of lawmakers will back him.