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Editorial: Latest offense shows the need to rein in Water Authority

It’s becoming ever clearer that the Erie County Water Authority is a rogue operation, blundering along as it chooses without regard to the law or common sense. It has outlived its usefulness.

The authority is a quasi-public agency that delivers water to tens of thousands of ratepayers in Erie County. Over the years, and twice within a month, it has shown itself to be indifferent to issues of ethics, qualifications or transparency, even as it siphons millions of dollars from users who have no other option for running water.

Its most recent offense is its continuing refusal to explain what the “emergency” was that prompted it to hire the Phillips Lytle law firm at a cost to ratepayers of $400 to $435 an hour. A Buffalo News reporter spotted a board agenda item in November referring to a “declaration of an emergency” and the decision to hire the law firm. Despite repeated attempts to learn why the authority was incurring that expense, leaders there refused.

That refusal continued even after the head of the state Committee on Open Government pulled back the sheets on the authority’s untenable claim of a right to secrecy. “The retainer agreement is a contract,” said Robert Freeman, executive director on the Committee for Open Government, “and contracts between a government agency and a party outside of government are, and historically have been, public.”

Yet, the authority won’t budge. It behaves as though it is a law unto itself. That would be intolerable even if the agency were run competently, but it can’t even manage that. It is a patronage pit where qualifications are all but irrelevant and where, during last summer’s drought, it offered no water use information for weeks, despite repeated requests from The News.

So, why is it we have a Water Authority? Why not just have an Erie County Water Department where officials are more easily held accountable and, thus, less likely to ignore laws meant to ensure that the public understands what costs they are underwriting?

There appears to be an obvious strategy here. Because the laws on open government are toothless, the authority can willfully ignore them, knowing there will be no serious repercussions and that most people won’t front the money needed to pursue the matter in court. That requires the attention of the governor and State Legislature.

If open meetings laws are to have any impact, violations must carry penalties that disincentivize misbehavior, especially in cases such as the Water Authority, where its bad faith continues even after it learns that it is wrong. That’s willful disregard and it should cost.

In some states, violations of open government laws can count as criminal violations. Even then, lax enforcement can be an issue, just as enforcement of election laws has been in Erie County. But at least the threat exists. The sword is there and it can be unsheathed.

That’s a long-term proposition, though. Today, accountability must begin with the Erie County Legislature, which approves members of the Water Authority’s board. If legislators aren’t demanding that the authority live up to the letter and spirit of the law, then their motives must also be suspect.

This isn’t the only controversy surrounding the authority. Three weeks ago, the authority’s board chairman, Earl Jann Jr., announced that he would like to be hired as its executive director at $145,000 a year, even though he has no qualifications for the job. His previous experience is as a pharmaceutical sales rep and supervisor of the Town of Marilla. Such is the level of professionalism expected at the Erie County Water Authority.

On its website, the authority tells the world: “The ECWA operates solely for the benefit of its customers.” Who is it kidding?

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