Offering an employment contract to the Erie County Water Authority executive director allowing him to collect up to $400,000 this year if he's arbitrarily fired "was wrong," Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said.
"There should be no golden parachutes in government," Poloncarz said. "We have no golden parachutes in Erie County, and there should be no golden parachutes at the Water Authority."
Water Authority commissioners approved an employment contract for Earl L. Jann Jr. that would pay the Republican Party donor between $300,000 and $400,000 if he is forced out this year once control of the agency flips from Republican to Democratic control. Jann’s new contract was approved by the Water Authority board on Jan. 11, days after Democrats regained control of the County Legislature.
Employment contracts with generous buyout offers for top administrators at the Water Authority are nothing new. More than $325,000 has been spent to buy out water authority administrators, under the terms of their employment contracts, since 2012, according to information provided to The Buffalo News in response to a Freedom of Information Law request.
It appears Jann, however, will stay in his job for some time because he'd be too expensive to fire.
The Water Authority board was initially in no hurry to finalize an employment contract for Jann, who served as board chairman before being appointed to the executive director post last May. But the board always intended to give him one, said authority Chairman Robert Anderson.
Commissioners waited a few months to see if Jann was a good fit for the position and were later preoccupied by the complicated and expensive water main break at its Sturgeon Point facility, which affected thousands of Southtowns residents last summer, said Anderson, a Republican commissioner who is expected to lose his seat at the end of April.
After the November elections, when Democrats won enough Legislature seats to retake control of the County Legislature, Jann asked that his employment contract be a priority, Anderson said.
"Earl prodded a little bit on this," he said. "He wanted this behind him. We all did."
Poloncarz said no public employee should have a contract guaranteeing such large payouts.
"I don't care if they're a Democrat, a Republican, Independence Party, whomever," he said. "These are people who serve the community."
He distinguished between those who work in the private sector and those who work for public bodies, like the Water Authority, a public utility agency tasked with providing safe, clean water to more than half a million Erie County residents.
"This is a public authority," he said. "The fees that are paying for that golden parachute are paid for by the ratepayers of the district. There should be no golden parachutes, whether it's Earl Jann or whoever it is."
Anderson defended Jann's contract and questioned whether Poloncarz, a Democrat, would object if Jann wasn't a Republican. He said he didn't recall Poloncarz voicing strong objections when Democrat Robert Gaylord, a former banking administrator and Collins Town Board member, was named the Water Authority's executive director in 2013.
Gaylord's original employment contract entitled him to a year's salary and health insurance if his contract ever expired.
"He had a true golden parachute," Anderson said.
The board renegotiated Gaylord's contract in 2016 to scale back some of those golden parachute provisions, and no similar provisions were extended to Jann, Anderson said. Jann's contract guarantees his full pay if he is arbitrarily fired during his contract term, but Anderson said that's standard in an employment contract and shouldn't be considered a golden parachute.
"The reason you have a contract is that you have secure employment for a set amount of time," Anderson said. "That's the whole point."
Anderson said he has no problem with top-level administrators having contracts, as long as they don't receive any additional perks or bonuses denied to other administrative employees.
"As long as there's no extras in it, I'm not opposed to that," Anderson said.
He added that Jann had requested a longer contract term, which was denied, and unlike Gaylord's contract, Jann is not entitled to a take-home vehicle.
Jann has the people skills and managerial skills needed to do the job and should be insulated from being a political target at a time when the Water Authority needs a steady hand, he said.
Jann, a former pharmaceutical sales representative and Marilla town supervisor, was heavily criticized for lacking credentials listed on the job description for the executive director post. Legislator Thomas Loughran, D-Amherst, subsequently introduced a resolution requesting the authority to remove loophole language that allows administrators without the listed background to be given the position. That year-old proposal has stagnated in committee.
Anderson said Jann doesn't need the technical knowledge held by the agency's engineers and specialists. He needs, and has, the managerial skills to oversee employees and operations, he said.
Organizational stability matters, Anderson said.
"We don't want to change over an executive director every two years just because the parties change," he said. "We want somebody in there so there's continuity in what we're doing."