Earl L. Jann Jr. was a former pharmaceutical sales rep and a long-time Marilla supervisor when he was appointed six years ago to the board of the Erie County Water Authority, a patronage post that paid him $22,500 a year.
But now he is preparing to maneuver into a bigger role. He wants to become executive director of the public utility, which supplies water to more than half a million people.
This job would pay more than $145,000 a year.
And why does Jann think he is fit for the job? Because he's been a hard-working board member.
"For my six years as a board member, I have worked to reform the Authority's employee relations, fix a deteriorating infrastructure, and replace an outdated IT system," Jann said in a statement to The Buffalo News. "There are many important things that still need to be done. With my board term finishing, I realize these remaining tasks require me to roll up my sleeves and take on a daily role within the Authority."
Whoever controls the Erie County Legislature — currently the Republicans — controls the top jobs at authority.
Jann has personally contributed more than $10,000 to local Republican committees and candidates since 2006. He's contributed $2,279 since the start of last year, including a $1,500 gift to the Erie County Republican Committee Chairman's Club in July.
Good government and public policy advocates have taken withering looks at the water authority and other public utilities that have become frequent stops for political patronage appointees. Agencies charged with providing clean, safe and reliable water are too important to be led by people with no training in the matter, they say.
Fred Floss, chair of Economics and Finance Department at SUNY Buffalo State, said that while Jann may be well intended, formal training matters.
"An executive director should probably have a degree in engineering and a specialty in water to understand how all of that works," Floss said. "It's hard to see how you can run something this technical if you don't have a reasonable background in the area."
If Jann is named executive director, he would take over from Robert Gaylord, a Democrat, former banking administrator and Collins town supervisor. The Republican-controlled ECWA Board refused to reappoint Gaylord to a second term last year.
Jann, a 1968 graduate of Canisius College who majored in history, is expected to lobby for the position based on his six years of experience overseeing the authority and on the long hours he already spends at ECWA headquarters. Those close to Jann say he can point to his role in improving employee relations, championing a more systematic approach to replacing old and deteriorating water lines, and pushing for much-needed technology upgrades during his time as chairman.
Jann said he wants a more hands-on role to further his goals at the authority.
"For this reason, I feel the role of executive director will allow me to be most effective," Jann said in his statement.
Floss, however, contends that without professional expertise, it's harder for a Water Authority administrator to effectively lobby for state and federal support of water system needs. The authority is likely to spend more money than necessary on consultants and specialists because in-house expertise is insufficient.
"Water is a fundamental builder of all infrastructure," said Floss, who also serves on the Buffalo control board. "Without clean water, you can't do anything else. So to the extent that we're going to politicize this, it is a real problem. It's not just a problem in Buffalo, but all across the country and New York State."
He recommended the ECWA board conduct a national search for the next executive director and vet those candidates in an open, public process. If Jann is truly the most qualified for the job, he said, that will be become apparent in the vetting process.
"From a good government perspective, we want to have an open process and let the best person win," Floss said.
With Jann no longer in the running for a seat on the board, the Legislature will be asked to vet two other candidates for the board. They submitted resumes and letters of interest this week. They include Karl J. Simmeth Jr., a community liaison who works for Republican Assemblyman David DiPietro and was former Boston town councilman; and Blasdell resident Peter Reszka, who worked his way up the ranks as a Water Authority employee for more than 40 years.
Simmeth, a Town of Boston resident and assistant buildings supervisor for Erie County Medical Center, holds an associate's degree in business administration. Reszka holds no college degree, but he retired from the authority last year as an assistant business manager and previously served as a member of the Town of Hamburg Planning Board.
The families of both men have each contributed thousands of dollars to Republican candidates and committees.
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