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Editorial: Investigate the secretive, dishonest Water Authority

We don’t know if Jerome Schad would be the change agent he claims when he argues to remain as chairman of the Erie County Water Authority. We do know, however, that even the authority’s state-level oversight agency now holds the authority’s leadership in disrepute and has called for him to be replaced. He should bow out as gracefully as the scathing report by the Authority Budget Office allows.

But that’s only a start. Given that the ABO has accused the authority board of committing crimes, District Attorney John J. Flynn Jr. needs to investigate why that happened. Did Water Authority commissioners, on their own whim, decide to violate laws on openness, or did marching orders come from higher up the political food chain? It’s time for some answers.

The ABO report is unsparing and dead-on accurate in its criticisms of this secretive and dishonest organization. There’s no coming back from it. In fact, the entire operation needs to be abolished and refashioned as a county department with clear professional standards. That’s the path to respectability.

For today, though, new leadership will be a start.

The ABO’s recommendation was to dismiss all commissioners associated with the violations it cited. Schad is the only commissioner who remains from the two-year period covered by the report. And while he contends that, as a Democrat, he was then in the minority and without influence on the three-member board, the authority needs to start fresh.

But Earl L. Jann Jr., the authority’s unqualified executive director, was a commissioner when the mayhem was underway. He should go, too, and if he invokes the ridiculous golden parachute he was given, the county should go to court. Ratepayers shouldn’t be on the hook for this sweetheart deal.

Whether the county Legislature will move on any of this is unlikely, given county political leaders’ affection for the existing system and their ability to reward high-dollar donors such as Jann with jobs for which they are unqualified. That’s corrupt, of course, but legislators and party bosses cleave to it, anyway. Why would they fire someone who suited their political desires to begin with? And, if they do, why wouldn’t they just replace him with someone else who will do their bidding? It’s a broken system.

The only hope, short of abolishing the authority, is if the political class in county government believes the ABO is truly on its case, and will remain there. That’s unknowable, at least for the moment. But give the state agency this much: It didn’t pull any punches. It found, for example, that the authority:

  • Approved an employment contract in April 2017 for Deputy Director Robert Lichtenthal without showing that the agreement provided a 36 percent raise and with no evaluation of his job performance.
  • Approved the 2018 budget without presenting any budget information or having any public discussion. But they had talked: Commissioners admitted they discussed the budget in private meetings instead. That’s illegal.
  • Failed to file forms acknowledging their fiduciary duty, even though staff subsequently submitted reports falsely claiming the forms had been signed.
  • Repeatedly failed to take proper action in regard to FOIL requests, sometimes simply ignoring them. And, talk about arrogance: It even refused to provide information sought by the ABO for its report.

Those are only some of the problems outlined in the 20-page document, and they inevitably raise the question of who is pulling the strings. Given the nefarious influence of politics on the board, there is every reason to be suspicious.

That puts the matter in Flynn’s court.

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