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Erie County Water Authority looks to Albany for its latest patronage hire

A Republican lawyer from Albany with no public works experience has been tapped for a top post at the Erie County Water Authority that pays more than $132,000.

He replaces a Democrat who held the lucrative job for nearly two decades and whose prior experience was housing inspections.

And so it goes at the Water Authority, where experience providing water, apparently, is not the top priority when the two parties look to fill high-paying jobs. Appointments to the Water Authority board are controlled by the county Legislature, and Republicans now form the majority there.

The latest beneficiary is Joseph T. Burns, formerly an official at the state Board of Elections in Albany.

Burns is a close associate of Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy. But at an agency long criticized as a patronage haven, no one – including Langworthy – wants their fingerprints on this latest appointment, which has even Republicans scratching their heads.

Some local GOP operatives privately wonder why the board would go outside Erie County to fill the secretary’s job, which is considered a political plum.

“All I know is that everyone dreams of landing at the Water Authority one day,” said one Republican, who agreed to speak only on background.

“I’m sure there will be a round of phone calls amongst some political people, like, ‘What the hell?’ ” the source added.

Speculation is that Burns was hired because of his connection to Langworthy.

While the GOP chairman acknowledged that he and Burns are longtime friends, he declined to discuss whether he had any role in the appointment and directed all questions to new board Chairman Earl L. Jann Jr.

“As party chairman, it’s not my role to speak for the Water Authority chairman,” Langworthy said. “They have a process. It was a job that was posted and Joe was hired.”

“He is a longtime friend, but he’s also very qualified,” Langworthy added. “Everyone wants to knock the way these people are hired, but these jobs are posted. Everyone in the world has the opportunity to apply.”

Democrats, similarly, had little to say about the appointment at an agency where they also have plugged in party loyalists.

“Not my fight,” said one Democratic county legislator, who declined to speak on the record when apprised of Burns’ appointment.

In fact, few officials of either major political party wanted to speak for attribution, though some privately acknowledged the entrenched patronage system at the Water Authority, which has 235 employees and a $68.3 million budget, up from $65.9 million last year.

Burns succeeds Buffalo Democrat Matthew J. Baudo, who had a 19-year run as authority secretary until April 30 when control of the three-member Board of Commissioners shifted from Democratic to Republican hands for the first time in more than two decades.

Baudo, who came to the Water Authority from the City of Buffalo’s building inspections division, will stay on for a while as deputy administrative director to help Burns transition into his new role, according to Jann. For his assistance, Baudo will earn a salary of $126,750, which is $28,232 less than he was making as secretary.

Water Authority Deputy Director Robert J. Lichtenthal Jr. said Baudo’s new position was already funded in the authority’s 2015 budget but had previously gone unfilled.

Jann acknowledged that Burns was the only applicant for the secretary’s post.

“Based on Mr. Burns’ qualifications, experience and education, he far exceeds the qualifications for the position,” Jann said in a prepared statement.

Asked about those qualifications in a phone interview, Jann was less than precise.

“The job description is very fluid. As an exempt employee, there are no specific qualifications for the job,” he said.

A former authority insider said that lack of specificity also came into play in the hiring of Baudo, who got the job “because he played basketball with Tony Masiello,” the former Buffalo mayor who had named Baudo his director of property inspections.

The authority’s former lawyer, John B. Licata – a Democrat and former Buffalo School Board member – resigned his $114,000-a-year post May 1 after the board decided at its April 30 meeting that Burns would also run the legal department.

Burns, a Syracuse native, earned undergraduate degrees in history and political science in 2001 from Syracuse University and his law degree in 2004 from Albany Law School, according to a 2013 profile on the Syracuse University website. Prior to his six-year stint with the state Board of Elections, Burns was an aide to Sen. John DeFrancisco, R-Syracuse.

Burns has already established a residence in Amherst and, according to Republican Erie County Elections Commissioner Ralph Mohr, registered April 16 to vote in Erie County.

While Baudo was earning $154,982 a year in the job, Lichtenthal confirmed that Burns will be paid $132,756 annually.

Jann said the secretary’s position was posted on the authority’s website and that the authority stringently follows specific steps when hiring.

“Our ratepayers can rest assured that every individual hired by ECWA must be well-qualified, meet all New York State Civil Service requirements, and perform their duties in a professional manner, or they will not remain employed with the organization,” he said.

Of course, the secretary’s post is exempt from Civil Service requirements.