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After last-minute agenda change, water authority names new director

After sidestepping press inquiries and making a last-minute changes to its agenda, the Erie County Water Authority board Thursday morning unanimously appointed its former chairman, Earl L. Jann Jr., as executive director at a salary of more than $145,000.

No mention of the appointment was listed on the board's draft agenda sent to reporters late Wednesday afternoon.

And in a phone conversation with a reporter less than an hour before the Thursday morning meeting, a public relations spokesman for the authority made no mention of the new director's appointment.

When the final agenda was distributed to the commissioners and other administrators that morning, however, Jann's appointment was included.

The board spokesman said he was unaware the appointment was going to take place until after the meeting had started and the appointment was announced.

Jann Jr., a former pharmaceutical sales rep and a longtime Marilla supervisor, will now go from a politically appointed seat that paid him $22,500 a year to a politically appointed job that pays $145,073 a year. He begins immediately.

Neither Board Chairman Robert Anderson nor Jann would comment about the appointment after the meeting, the spokesman said.

ECWA 5-25-17 draft agenda

ECWA 5-25-17 official agenda (highlighting added)

The water authority has long kept agency information from the public, even though the agency has more than doubled the amount of money budgeted for "public information" since last year.

The authority has redacted Freedom of Information Law requests, against legal advice provided by the New York State Committee on Open Government.

The agency's stringent media policy regarding public information requests states that the goal of the policy is to protect the water authority's reputation and interests. The policy is not designed to provide accurate or timely information to the public.

Only a board commissioner, the secretary to the water authority, or a spokesman with Zeppelin Communications are allowed to speak with reporters, said spokesman Sean Dwyer.

The Erie County Water Authority is a $73 million-a-year publicly funded agency responsible for providing clean water to more than half a million consumers throughout the county. It raises its revenue from residential and commercial water customers.

Longtime employees acknowledge that the politically controlled public utility agency operates as an employment center for the politically connected and big political donors. It's agency leaders are appointed, not elected. Its budgets, funded by thousands of rate-paying property owners, are subject to limited public scrutiny and no public vote.

The leadership of the water authority is controlled by whichever party holds the majority in the Erie County Legislature. The current majority coalition is supported by the Erie County Republican Party.

New appointments and leadership changes at the water authority and to the board are typically made at the board's annual reorganization meeting in May.

However, Jann was not appointed executive director at that time, when a Buffalo News reporter was present, even though his interest in the position had been publicly known for months.

Once the meeting was over Thursday, Dwyer provided the information about the appointment and said he had not seen the final agenda beforehand.

Dwyer works for Zeppelin Communications, a public relations firm operated by Republican strategist Michael Caputo. The authority pays the firm $60,000 a year for its PR services.

Jann is replacing Robert F. Gaylord, a Democrat and former Collins town council member who was appointed in 2013 when the Democrats still controlled the Legislature.

Legislature Minority Leader Thomas Loughran, D-Amherst, wanted the Legislature to urge the water authority board to adjust its job description for the executive director position to better ensure whoever is hired as executive director has the required experience. His proposal was sent to committee, and the Legislature took no action.

Jann, a Republican, 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.

He has previously stated he's qualified for the position 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 previous 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.”

Some who know Jann said he has taken a hands-on approach to the water authority since becoming chairman. He has improved employee relations, championed a more systematic approach to replacing old and deteriorating water lines, and pushed for much-needed technology upgrades.

Jann graduated from Canisius College with a major in history, served in the New York National Guard, and worked as a pharmaceutical sales representative for 36 years.

Water infrastructure fees have risen sharply while Jann has been chairman. Under his leadership, the ECWA also has moved toward a more proportional fee structure that imposes higher fees on businesses that use more water, such as commercial users, while keeping residential rates lower.

Though Jann was appointed as executive director, the details of his employment contract have not yet been finalized, Dwyer said. His contract would have to come back before the ECWA board for approval.



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