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Editorial: Water Authority needs to close hiring loophole

Ratepayers can raise a glass to the Erie County legislator who wants to close a loophole that allows an inexperienced, unqualified applicant to run the Water Authority.

The place is a patronage pit – cesspool, if you will – where party fealty is the price of admission.
For politicians who have worn out their welcome at the polls, a seat at the board table and $22,500 payday is a great way to land. A further insult was heaped upon the public late last month.

A retired pharmaceutical sales rep and longtime Marilla supervisor with very little relevant experience decided he would be a good fit as executive director. The position pays $145,000 a year, a nice jump from the boardroom to the top floor overlooking an operation charged with supplying water to more than a half-million people.

Earl L. Jann Jr. determined that his six years on the Water Authority board qualified him to be executive director. Also in his favor: he has contributed more than $10,000 to local Republican committees and candidates since 2006, including a $1,500 gift to the Erie County Republican Committee Chairman’s Club last July.

Jann qualifies for the job only because of the Water Authority’s extremely loose requirements for the top job. Most of the language in the job description seems to eliminate Jann – candidates must have 10 years’ experience “in the administration of a large-scale municipal or private water production and distribution system” and should have a college degree in hydraulic engineering, business or public administration. Inexplicably, the job description adds: “… or any equivalent combination of experience and training sufficient to indicate ability to do the work.”

Minority Leader Thomas Loughran, a Democrat, calls it a loophole that should be eliminated. Most would call it a political back door through which unqualified candidates can slip by an unwary public.
Loughran’s proposal, sent to committee last week, is already heading for the drain. Even if the Legislature agrees and passes the proposal, it cannot require the Water Authority to make any changes to the job description, no matter how sensible. The Legislature’s power over the Water Authority is limited to the appointment of commissioners.

Loughran noted that reforms have taken place at the Water Authority, although at a glacial pace. Commissioners were once rewarded with cars and credit cards.

The authority should change its job description to require its executive director to be an experienced professional in water operations, barring some extraordinary situation. It would be a first step in draining this patronage pit.

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