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Editorial: There's no reforming the Water Authority

Here’s what Erie County legislators and members of the county Water Authority need to know: Their actions regarding this misbegotten agency are all-but beyond defending.

It doesn’t even matter if they are making the best possible decision in any given matter, so completely have their manipulations poisoned the well. This is an agency beyond redemption. It needs to go away.

The latest eruption from the Water Authority is an action that in just about any other context would be about as controversial as drying paint. The Erie County Legislature appointed a new commissioner to the three-member board that oversees the authority. Democratic lawyer Mark Carney was appointed at least in part on grounds that he will champion transparency – which legislators show no sign of wanting – and that he has the experience to reform the authority.

He doesn’t.

The fact is that no one does, because the political parties that control the authority like things just as they are. With the corrupt existing system, they have maneuvering room to reward favored fortunate sons such as the authority’s current executive director, Earl L. Jann Jr., a former town supervisor and authority commissioner whose main qualification for running the $73 million-a-year operation is that he donated a lot of money to the Republican party. That’s corrupt.

That’s also why it’s notable – predictable, actually – that Carney is a Democratic lawyer. Democrats control the Legislature now and they call the tune. How is he – or anyone else – going to reform an authority whose organizational purpose is to please the politicians? He can’t. It’s a con.

This charade falls squarely in the New York penchant for responding to ethical failures by pretending to do something useful. Albany has perfected that strategy, staving off repeated calls for serious ethics and election law reforms by taking incremental steps meant to offer the illusion of action while allowing the politicians to party on.

It’s not coincidental that two highly placed practitioners of that approach – former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos – are facing retrials in federal court on felonies tied to the misuse of their former public offices. Their dishonesty eventually caught up to them.

No one has suggested any criminality in the operations or oversight of the Water Authority. Its dishonesty is legal, and that’s a problem. But the County Legislature wants no part of fixing it.

Erie County Legislator Thomas A. Loughran, an Amherst Democrat, proposed a useful, commonsense – and ultimately vain – measure to improve administration of the authority. He wants to eliminate the job description loophole that allowed the hiring of someone as unsuited to the executive director’s position as Jann demonstrably is. It has gone nowhere. The puts the problem squarely in Albany’s lap.

The authority is a state creation and it’s up to Albany to fix this problem. The best solution is to abolish the Erie County Water Authority and to transfer its responsibilities to a county-run water department with professional standards for its leadership positions.

No more political back-scratching. No more golden parachutes to golden boys who lack any reasonable qualifications for their highly-paid positions. This should be a no-brainer for Erie County’s Democratic Assembly members and its Republican senators. If they won’t push this matter in the Legislature, then voters have the right to wonder what their standards are and whom they truly represent.

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