NIAGARA FALLS - Depending on who you ask, the removal of the entire top management of the Niagara Falls Water Board Thursday was a deserved housecleaning or a union-engineered coup.
With little advance notice, the board, bolstered by new members chosen by Mayor Paul A. Dyster and the City Council, replaced the agency's top three executives and its part-time attorney. New appointees were placed in those positions.
The board's new chairman, mayoral appointee Daniel T. O'Callaghan, said the search for new names didn't start until last Friday, six days before the changes were made.
"We started to put some feelers out and contacted some people," O'Callaghan said. "There were a few people we knew who knew people who had some expertise."
Three of the fired executives - Executive Director Paul J. Drof, Infrastructure and Operations Director Norman D. Allen, and Administrative Services director Anthony M. Hahn - had time left on their three-year contracts, less than a year in each case.
The Buffalo News calculated that the Water Board will spend about $185,000 to pay the three ousted men to not work until their contracts run out.
"There's cost savings that are coming. There's more than adequate funds to take care of those issues," O'Callaghan said. "It was a thing that had to be done. The performance of the administration was missing a lot."
Drof earned $110,000 a year and Hahn and Allen about $85,000 each. The interim executive director, Rolfe Porter, is to be paid $90,000 a year; Hahn's replacement, James M. Perry, will earn $72,500; and Allen's replacement, Joseph LaGamba, will earn $79,934. LaGamba already is a long-time employee of the board as chief operator of the waterwater treatment plant, a position he will keep. He's also president of the United Steelworkers local that represents some of the board's employees.
Attorney John J. Ottaviano, whose law firm was paid $5,000 a month, is being replaced by David V. Sanchez, who will be paid $4,000 a month as general counsel. Also, another lawyer in Ottaviano's firm, Nicholas V. Amigone III, was named special counsel.
"The board has created a reputation for being unresponsive and unconcerned about the problems (city residents) face in their daily lives," Dyster said. "There's a lot of things that could be done a lot better, and no one should be surprised if the elected officials who appoint people to the Niagara Falls Water Board think some changes should be made."
Gretchen Leffler, who was replaced by O'Callaghan as board chair Thursday, had a different view.
"We basically had a coup, and (Thursday) night we had the culmination of the coup," said Leffler. "I personally believe this was all orchestrated with the help of the mayor and the Niagara Falls City Council. I can't even wrap my mind around this egregious behavior."
"I didn't tell Dan O'Callaghan I wanted him to get rid of anyone," Dyster said. "He was going to look at the performance of the top management and depending on what he found, to look at potential replacements."
But Leffler said she knew something was up two months ago.
"We started hearing around the plant employees telling their supervisors, 'You better start putting your resume together because we're going to put in new board members and you're all going to be fired,'" Leffler said.
O'Callaghan, who replaced Leffler as board chair, was appointed to the board last week. The Council named Niagara County Democratic Party Chairman Nicholas J. Forster to the board last month.
They joined former County Legislator Renae Kimble as the three-member board majority that made the changes. Leffler voted no, and Theodore A. Janese III abstained. He said Friday he would have voted no, but he lacked enough information on the new appointees to make an informed vote.
"People lost their jobs that shouldn't have lost their jobs," Janese said. "They did good work. They never posted these jobs. It was just, 'Hey, we're firing Paul Drof. You want a job?'"
Dyster said the board's failure to promptly repair frozen pipes on 72nd Street in 2015 and what he deemed an inadequate response to flooded basements after a July 2013 rainstorm were marks against the Water Board.
"I found myself in living rooms explaining to people what government could not do to help them," the mayor said.
O'Callaghan also cited a State Comptroller's audit last year that found $6.3 million in a debt service that the state said could have been used to reduce water rates. Drof contended at the time that the money was earmarked for infrastructure upgrades.
O'Callaghan said the new administration intends to get to work on repairing leaky old water lines. As of the end of 2015, 67.5 percent of the water pumped into the city system never got to users' water meters.
Janese said the firings were "payback" for the 72nd Street matter, which flared up during Dyster's re-election campaign, and for an unsuccessful lawsuit in which the Water Board tried to get a judge to say the board didn't have to make an annual $700,000 payment to the city in lieu of taxes.
Leffler predicted that the unions, who have been without contracts for the past eight years, now will be able "to write their own ticket."
The resolution hiring Perry promised him a $3,000 bonus if there are new union contracts in place by Dec. 31. O'Callaghan said he thought Perry was being offered a possible "performance raise," not a bonus, for completing those deals.