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Water Authority leaders promise new 'gold standard' of transparency

Odd changes are occurring at the Erie County Water Authority:

The staff posted the agency's 2017 payroll to its website without being asked.

Complete agenda packets are being posted several days ahead of the board's regular meetings, instead of a partial agenda being posted less than 24 hours in advance, or not at all.

Public committee meetings have been called to hash out troublesome issues instead of one-on-one powwows in private between individual commissioners and authority staff.

Could the Water Authority – a public agency that has spent the past several years solidifying its reputation for stonewalling and secrecy – actually be turning into a more open and transparent organization?

It's a little early to know for sure, but initial signs are promising.

At a special committee meeting last week, Chairman Jerome Schad and Commissioner Mark Carney spent nearly two hours reviewing a draft report from the state on the authority's operations, governance and transparency. The draft findings included a long list of transparency and governance failures and asked for an agency response.

In a nutshell, board commissioners admitted the Water Authority made mistakes.

And they said it in the open.

Over the past two weeks, Carney has called the report a "blueprint for change" and pledged to end the "hide-and-seek shell game" that has embodied the authority's relationship with the media and good-government advocates.

"We have to give you access to everything," he said. "It keeps everybody in check."

Meanwhile, Schad and other top administrators have denounced the authority's past practice of foot dragging and heavy redactions when it comes to answering Freedom of Information Law requests.

"We're going to end the minimalist approach," Schad said.

Terrence McCracken, who has been elevated as the new secretary to the authority, said he intends for the authority to eventually embody the "gold standard" of public transparency and openness. After the Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government gave the authority an "F" on its transparency report card in March, McCracken said he intended to act on every recommendation.

Amherst lawyer Paul Wolf, president of the Open Government coalition, said he's heard back from both McCracken and the two board commissioners since the report was released.

"The score that they received was shameful," he said.

But the outreach from the Water Authority since then has been a pleasant surprise.

"They seem to be responding and taking some good steps, and I hope they will make changes," Wolf said. "They've certainly been more responsive than a lot of other organizations."

Among the efforts currently in the works, the authority has begun soliciting input and proposals to:

  • Update the website to provide more information and make it user-friendly.
  • Hire a new PR firm after firing Zeppelin Communications, operated by Republican strategist Michael Caputo.
  • Video record board meetings.

The board has also discussed providing an opportunity for the public to comment at its meetings, and opening up its meeting space so that members of the public can easily find a seat. Several policies regarding how the Water Authority deals with the media are also in the process of being updated with new model language.

The abrupt change in tone by Water Authority officials corresponds to a change in leadership. The Legislature majority changed hands from Republican to Democrat in January.

That led to the appointment of  Carney, a Democratic commissioner and big party donor, and elevated Schad, the Amherst Democratic Party chairman, from a regular Democratic commissioner to board chairman. It also elevated the voice of Water Authority staff attorney Margaret Murphy, another high-profile Democratic lawyer and fund-raiser. All three have spoken out repeatedly about improving openness and transparency at the agency.

"I don't think we were transparent enough," Schad said, reflecting on his past service on the board.

Schad, who at times felt marginalized as a minority board member, says he's now committed to embracing a new culture at the authority that keeps all commissioners and staff in the loop and provides proper notice to the public about upcoming discussions. Decisions made via one-on-one conversations between a commissioner and a staffer will be curtailed or halted in favor on group discussions that include everyone, he said.

It's clear that the new leadership team blames prior Republican leaders for fostering an "us-and-them" mentality at the authority.

Former Republican board Chairman Robert Anderson stepped down from his position in December. Joseph Burns, a friend of Erie County Republican Chairman Nick Langworthy and gatekeeper of agency information, also has been removed from that position and reassigned. The remaining board Republican, Karl Simmeth, resigned his commissioner's seat last week in advance of his retirement from the Erie County Medical Center on Wednesday.

"The Water Authority certainly has a bad reputation as far as openness goes," Wolf said. "There's some new leadership there. They've expressed a desire to change, and I hope they will."

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