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Editorial: Nothing to see at the Erie County Water Authority, folks

Commissioners of the Erie County Water Authority say their fiefdom is operating just fine, thank you very much. No need to make any changes at all. Keep moving.

Perhaps they really believe that, though it’s hard to believe. Nevertheless, for everyone else, even the recent evidence to the contrary is overwhelming. Consider:

• Following standard authority practice, commissioners last year decided to hire Earl L. Jann Jr. as its executive director. Jann, then a commissioner himself, had expressed interest in the position, even though he had no relevant experience. He had been a town supervisor and a pharmaceutical sales rep. In what manual of good management practices is that hiring policy found?

What he did do was contribute thousands of dollars to Republican causes over the years. With Republicans then controlling the Erie County Legislature, he was a shoo-in. That’s called corruption, not good management.

It’s important to note that Democrats have behaved similarly when they controlled the Legislature. Indeed, the newly empowered Democrats appointed a new commissioner this month: lawyer Mark S. Carney. And – wouldn’t you know it? – Carney and his law firm gave $24,950 to the Erie County Democratic Committee and to party Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner’s own political fund. They gave thousands more to other Democratic candidates and groups, as well. Carney also donated to candidates of other parties.

In the end, Jann was simply following past practices at an agency where political favoritism matters more than a solid resumé. No one’s hands are clean here.

• The day it voted to hire Jann, a spokesman for the board told a reporter that the appointment was not on the meeting’s agenda. But moments later it was, and the board hired its unqualified candidate in about as surreptitious a manner as it could manage. In what way does that depict an agency that is not begging for reform? How does that acknowledge public accountability?

It doesn’t. Instead, it documents an agency that plays fast-and-loose with the public, the idea of professionalism and, in the end, with the health and safety of ratepayers who rely on a critical agency to supply a life-sustaining product: clean water. That the authority has managed to do that is no credit to its careless hiring policies and deference to political bosses.

• With Democrats having won control of the Erie County Legislature in November, the Republican-appointed board quickly moved to protect Jann with a golden parachute that would have made Midas glow with envy. It guaranteed Jann a payment of up to $400,000 if he was fired.

Jann accepted that contract – happily, it appears – despite seeking five years ago to oust the agency’s longtime executive director without paying the $150,000 golden parachute that contract allowed. “We don’t believe there should be contracts for anybody in the Water Authority,” he said then.

Things do change, don’t they?

Except when they don’t. The authority remains what it has been: a politically driven operation, utterly interested in reform. Thus, its commissioners appeared Monday at the Erie County Legislature, defending its operations with glossy booklets and charts meant to demonstrate that, despite its transparent political machinations, no one need be concerned.

A number of legislators differed with that conclusion though, it is worth noting, only one – Thomas Loughran, D-Amherst – has demanded action. For the most part, they remain beholden to the party bosses who benefit from the corrupt system long in place.

Just kill it. Put it out of ratepayers’ misery and replace it with a county department that insists upon professional standards and doesn’t care how much money its leaders have donated to the politicians and party bosses.

This is now Albany’s job. The authority is a state creation. The state must act.

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