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Water Authority commissioners agree to regularly report to Legislature

After weeks of bruising headlines, Erie County Water Authority commissioners appeared before the County Legislature last week and handed out glossy, 30-page booklets with color charts to make their case the authority is fine just the way it is.

Legislators listened politely. But unlike previous meetings, their flattery of the Water Authority was more muted and criticism more pointed. In between a smattering of praise for the authority's efforts to modernize and control rates, most legislators repeatedly requested that the authority board and executive director regularly report to the Legislature.

"If you are coming in here talking to us as a legislative body in the manner that you are, I'm concerned that you are not hearing us," said Legislator Barbara Miller-Williams, D-Buffalo. "You certainly aren't hearing the constituents."

Ultimately, the three commissioners agreed to appear before the Legislature as needed in an effort to become more accountable and transparent. Legislators discussed possibly meeting monthly or quarterly but did not settle on a firm time frame.

The Water Authority routinely endures runs of bad publicity because of the agency's longstanding practice of giving top administrative jobs to big political donors, both Republican and Democrat.

The Buffalo News reported last month that the Republican commissioners at the Erie County Water Authority gave their Republican-appointed Executive Director Earl L. Jann Jr. a three-year contract after it became clear Democrats would take control of the agency later this year. The pact guarantees Jann his full salary through 2020 if fired without cause.

That set off the latest round of public outrage regarding the golden parachute arrangement that makes Jann, a political appointee, too expensive to fire. Legislators responded by asking authority leaders to show up and explain themselves. Commissioners came prepared to defend their management structure, executive director, safe water and water rates.

"Gentlemen, I know there is a difference of opinion," said Legislator Thomas Loughran, D-Amherst, after nearly an hour of back and forth. "But I think the bottom line is, you're not going to reform yourself. If there's going to be reform, it's going to come from the outside."

Other legislators were far gentler in their questioning, though less deferential than in the past. When Chairman Robert Anderson asked if he could make some opening remarks, Government Affairs Committee Chairman Patrick Burke, D-Buffalo, said he'd rather make some of his own remarks first.

"We've all read The Buffalo News over the last several weeks, and the public has demanded accountability," he said.

Then he opened the floor for questions.

As usual, most legislators gingerly walked the fine line between demanding agency reform, distancing themselves from the state-controlled agency and keeping peace with local party bosses who benefit from a system that rewards party loyalists with Water Authority jobs.

Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo, C-West Seneca, said it wasn't the Legislature's duty to police the Erie County Water Authority, which answers to the state. He also suggested it would be best if the authority removed the words "Erie County" from its name.

"What bothers me, and what bothers a lot of other people and why it keeps coming up in the news, is the reputation the Water Authority has of being a patronage pit," said Legislator Kevin Hardwick, R-City of Tonawanda. "The allegation of the golden parachute is troublesome for a number of us."

Anderson objected to the term "golden parachute" to describe Jann's employment contract – even though the definition of the business term refers to contracts that guarantee pay for an executive even if the individual is fired, which is what Jann received.

The chairman also offered a vocal defense of the decision to extend a three-year employment contract to Executive Director Earl Jann in the interests of "stability and continuity."

"You can't just fire him willy nilly," Anderson said.

The contract terms guarantee Jann his full pay for three years if he is fired before his contract expires, he said.

"We want to see him be here three years," Anderson said. "If he screws up, like anybody else with any other employment contract, it's called 'just cause.' Fire him. He gets nothing."

Anderson also defended the 1949 state legislation that permits public authorities to operate without local government oversight or influence so that it can provide services "like a private business." He and the authority's two other commissioners, Republican Karl Simmeth Jr. and Democrat Jerome Schad, praised Jann's management experience and oversight of new programs.

Loughran was most vocal in his criticism of the authority. He asked the three commissioners if any of them would deny they were seated with the blessings of their political party chairmen.

Silence followed.

He also directed questions to Simmeth, saying that before Simmeth was appointed commissioner last year, Loughran had asked him to seriously consider a proposal that would close loopholes in the job description of the executive director. The change would make it difficult for the authority to hire someone without business or utility management credentials in the future.

"We discussed it, but it went nowhere," Simmeth said.

"There's a lot of good things going on over there," he said. "I just don't see where we want to change stuff just to change things. I think things are running pretty smooth there now."

The report distributed by authority officials indicated the agency employs fewer people than a decade ago despite a growing customer base. It has paid down debt. The authority also charges customers less for water than other municipal water authorities in upstate New York except for Monroe County, even though charges have risen in recent years.

Hardwick and Legislator Edward Rath III, R-Amherst, praised the authority's efforts to make improvements while keeping water charges reasonable and said it might be easier to defend the authority when they start receiving more regular reports about the authority's work.

But other legislators also expressed disappointment with the authority commissioners' insistence on defending everything the way it exists now.

Miller-Williams followed by saying the defensive tone adopted by authority commissioners was far more evident than their willingness to hear concerns or consider suggestions about how the agency could be better.

"As I sit here today and I observe the conversation, the demeanor, the responses, now I get it. I understand," she said. "We have a problem at the Erie County Water Authority."

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