The Erie County Water Authority board voted Thursday to fire its executive director, Earl L. Jann Jr., after determining the terms of his employment contract are invalid.
When asked whether Jann was fired because the new board disapproved of his leadership, commissioners said they would not discuss Jann's job performance.
"It doesn't matter whether we like someone or don't like someone," said Commissioner Mark Carney. "If a contract is void, we have an obligation under the law to void that contract."
Commissioners said they have been advised that in most cases an executive director cannot be granted an employment contract that extends beyond one year because past boards cannot bind the hands of future boards when it comes to matters of governance, and the commissioners serve staggered terms. They also said many past contracts given to prior executive directors should not have been approved.
Jann was not the only administrator to have his contract voided Thursday, but he was the only administrator fired. The board also voided the contract for Deputy Director Robert Lichtenthal, though Chairman Jerome Schad said the board would reconvene next week to consider giving him a new – presumably shorter – contract.
It appears Lichtenthal is being considered as the authority's next executive director. Lichtenthal, a veteran administrator, has worked for the authority since 1996.
"He's been a stabilizing force and very helpful to us," Schad said. "We are well served by his services."
Jann, who was appointed to the top administrative post in May 2017, has been the target of public scrutiny and criticism, with county legislators contending the major Republican donor and former board chairman didn't meet job description qualifications.
That criticism intensified after the Republican-controlled board granted him a three-year employment contract in January, when Jann's job seemed in jeopardy due to a Democratic takeover of the county Legislature. That contract seemingly made him too expensive to fire.
But commissioners determined the contract extended to Jann violated the term-limit rulings, and they nullified contract language entitling him to the full payout of his three-year contract.
The board's decision comes two days after the public release of a scathing report by the state's Authorities Budget Office. The agency outlined a lengthy list of violations regarding governance and transparency at the organization. Schad and Carney have had a draft copy of that report for weeks.
The report calls for all board commissioners who served in 2016 and 2017 to be fired by the county Legislature. Schad is the only remaining commissioner from that time period.
Jann served as board chairman for much of the time period studied by the state oversight agency. He did not return a call Wednesday seeking his response to the report even though the commissioners gave him permission to talk with The News. A call to Jann on Thursday about his termination was also not returned.
A former Marilla town supervisor, Jann has supported the Republican party with nearly $17,000 in contributions and was slated to earn $149,000 this year.
His appointment to the executive director's position drew criticism from the beginning.
He was appointed in May of last year after a last-minute change to the agenda that hid his board appointment. A public relations spokesman said he had no knowledge of the appointment beforehand.
Jann received no employment contract or golden parachute protections from the previous Republican majority on the authority board until early this year, after Democrats took over the Legislature. A Democratic majority in the Legislature meant a changeover in the authority board's political leadership and threatened Jann's job security.
Jann was hired despite job description language that says the Water Authority's executive director should have "10 years of increasingly responsible and successful executive experience in the administration of a large-scale municipal or private water-distribution system."
The description included language, which enabled Jann's hiring, stating that qualifications could include "any equivalent combination of experience and training sufficient to indicate ability to do the work."
Jann previously defended his hiring, citing a number of managerial improvements, changes and upgrades that he has overseen at the authority.
Rarely have Water Authority directors been engineers, Jann said. In fact, the title used to be "administrative director" – which would be more apt today because the organization employs people with professional credentials for engineering decisions, financial management and legal concerns, he said.
"The position of executive director does not require an engineering degree," Jann said. "But it does require some common sense, and it does require the ability to manage people. And I believe my resume demonstrates that I have that ability."
Authority leaders declined to say whether Jann was being fired for cause.