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Editorial: A good start at the Water Authority

Finally, a little good news out of the Erie County Water Authority. Its leaders are promising a new “gold standard” of public transparency and openness, and frankly acknowledging the “minimalist” approach the authority has taken in dealing with the public and the media.

It’s an encouraging change, to be sure, one for which its ratepayers have reason to be pleased. But what it doesn’t do is change the facts that the chronic obfuscation was meant to conceal: that this agency has been created and pursued as a reward for those who have curried favor with the politicians who pull its strings. There is no reason to believe that has changed and, thus, no reason to allow it to continue in its current structure.

Indeed, while the authority’s commitment to secrecy was wholly indefensible, it was only a symptom of the larger issue. A public authority run for public benefit would have no need to try to conceal its actions from the public. Although the Erie County Water Authority’s mission is to reliably deliver clean drinking water to its captive ratepayers, its administrative structure repudiates the goal.

An agency committed to its mission would make a point of hiring capable, experienced professionals to manage a business with an annual budget of $73 million. Yet the authority’s job description for executive director obviates its otherwise high standards by admitting anyone with “any equivalent combination of experience and training sufficient to indicate ability to do the work.”

Thus, the commissioners of the authority – named by members of the Erie County Legislature – were able last year to hire Earl L. Jann Jr. as executive director last year. Jann is a retired pharmaceutical sales rep and longtime supervisor of the Town of Marilla. Not coincidentally, he has also been a generous donor to Republican candidates and causes.

For such reasons, Jann was considered a fine candidate to fill a $145,000-a-year position that would otherwise have required a candidate who must have 10 years’ experience “in the administration of a large-scale municipal or private water production and distribution system” and should have a college degree in hydraulic engineering, business or public administration.

That also is the reason that commissioners gave Jann a golden parachute worth up to $400,000. Democrats had taken over the County Legislature and they might have tried to dump Jann in favor of their own choice – qualified or not.

It’s good news that the authority is pledging openness of a sort it has willfully resisted until now. And it’s also good news that the state Legislature is considering legislation to prohibit the kind of job guarantee the authority gave Jann.

But the fact is, this authority has been, and remains, a political bog. The state that created it needs to abolish it in favor of a county department subject to the requirements of government transparency and with an inviolate expectation that its leaders will be individuals who are experts, not in political giving, but in their profession.

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