The leading candidate for a seat on Erie County's politically driven water agency assured county lawmakers Thursday he will make decisions on behalf of ratepayers, not party leaders.
But even as the candidate, Democrat Mark S. Carney of Amherst, spoke in his public job interview, some lawmakers worked behind the scenes to impose a 90-day freeze on the naming of any new commissioner at the Erie County Water Authority.
The County Legislature has been rattled by news that the Republicans who currently control the Water Authority gave their Republican-appointed executive director a contract with a six-figure golden parachute – after it became clear Democrats would take control of the agency later this year.
The revelation touched off a new storm of controversy for the Water Authority, which while pumping water to some 550,000 people in Buffalo's suburbs provides a flow of patronage jobs to the party that controls the County Legislature, and a lesser number to the minority party.
The practice has gone on for decades, along with a stream of rate increases and, on rare occasions, devastating interruptions in service, such as last summer's water main rupture that separated the Sturgeon Point treatment plant from customers.
On Thursday, county lawmakers' discussions weren't limited to making sure golden parachute contracts never happen again. One of the Democrats, Thomas A. Loughran of Amherst, suggested naming a panel of experts to determine the feasibility of ending the authority's status as an independent agency and folding it into county government, as called for in the state law that created the agency almost 70 years ago.
Loughran then introduced a measure to stall the naming of a new Water Authority commissioner – by the Democrats – for 90 days, while the panel of experts conducts its research.
Almost immediately, a Republican legislator, Edward A. Rath III of Amherst, suggested a similar study and later endorsed the moratorium. The Republican caucus is outnumbered 6-5, but the moratorium could be imposed if the Republican bloc unites with Loughran in the days ahead.
As long as Democrats are blocked from installing their new commissioner – to replace a Republican whose term expires soon – the Water Authority would remain under Republican control. Republican commissioners Robert Anderson and Karl J. Simmeth Jr. would be able to outvote the lone Democrat on the three-member governing board, Jerome D. Schad, as they did when giving Executive Director Earl L. Jann Jr. his contract.
Against this backdrop, three candidates for this year's opening on the commission took turns Thursday answering questions posed by a Legislature committee. The questions were standard: "Tell us about a time when you took an unpopular position on a board." And confrontational: "How willing are you to blow the whole thing up?"
The candidates are Rhonda A. Ricks, a Buffalo businesswoman; Thomas E. Jaeger, a retired architect; and Carney, an attorney for 32 years who has donated about $25,000 to Democratic Party headquarters over the past five years. Several sources have told The News that the Democratic Party leadership wants Carney in the post.
Carney told lawmakers he didn't like the way Jann's employment contract came about. Jann, a former commissioner himself, had been named executive director months earlier. Then, when the November election made it clear the Democrats would retake the County Legislature, Republicans gave him a three-year contract making it too expensive to fire him without cause.
Contracts with golden parachutes are not uncommon, Carney said. School districts sign them all the time. But they are mostly used to draw talented applicants by assuring them some stability in political environments.
He told the Legislature that if its members decide there should never be another golden parachute at the Water Authority, then he will do everything he can to make sure there won't be one.
Carney didn't try to hide the fact he's well-connected. He said this when questioned by Legislator Joseph Lorigo, a Conservative from West Seneca: "I'm equally comfortable having dinner with Nick Langworthy (the county's Republican chairman) as I am with Jeremy Zellner (the county's Democratic chairman) as I am with your father." Joseph Lorigo's father, Ralph, is the county's Conservative Party chairman.
In one of his most direct comments about his indifference to political influence, he said he will not do anything to destroy his reputation for a part-time job that pays $22,000 a year.
And would he be "willing to blow the whole thing up?" as one legislator asked.
"I have zero problem blowing the whole thing up,'' Carney said. "I don't know that that's the answer, though."
The questions for the three candidates followed a morning session in which a number of lawmakers reversed their stance from a week ago, when they said they can do little to change the agency because it is a state creation.
The County Legislature sets the salaries of the Water Authority commissioners, said Legislator Patrick B. Burke, D-Buffalo, who had wanted to question the current Water Authority commissioners about Jann's contract during a meeting of his Government Affairs Committee. The commissioners declined his invitation, because they had their own meetings Thursday morning, but they issued a statement saying they would sit before Burke's panel in the future.
The fact county lawmakers set the commissioners' salary – currently $22,500 a year – gives lawmakers leverage to insist on reforms, Burke said.