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Editorial: County legislators must speak up on the Water Authority

At least two county legislators clearly understand the problem of the Erie County Water Authority and what it will take to deal with it. Thomas Loughran of Amherst and Patrick Burke of Buffalo, both Democrats, say this mismanaged authority should be abolished and replaced by a county water department.

They’re right. The question is, why are only two of the Legislature’s 11 members speaking up?

While some insiders argue that the authority can be reformed, that approach would do little more than ensure that a crooked operation abides by New York’s open-government laws. What would remain would be the stinking patronage pit long ago excavated by county legislators and their political bosses.

That’s not good enough. There is an opportunity now to take transformational action on behalf of county residents and the authority’s ratepayers. That’s what needs to happen.

Loughran and Burke have been the Erie County Legislature’s most vocal critics of the authority, a woebegone entity that values political fealty more than ability. The most recent example dynamic of that was the hiring of former Executive Director Earl L. Jann Jr., a former pharmaceutical sales rep and town supervisor whose only qualification for the Water Authority job was his generous donations to Republican causes. The authority’s new board fired Jann last week following a report by the state Authorities Budget Office that was sharply critical of operations there during the time that Jann was a board member.

But Jann wasn’t alone in parlaying political contributions into jobs with the Water Authority. That’s been normal operating procedure at the authority, routinely practiced by both Republicans and Democrats who care less about staffing the authority with qualified leaders than in rewarding donors with deep pockets.

Those overarching political calculations are fount of the authority’s arrogance. Once the decision was made that normal standards didn’t apply in one area, they all went out the window. The authority came to believe that it was accountable only to itself. Hence, its willful deceptions on its public agendas, its refusal to acknowledge Freedom of Information requests and its general refusal to abide by open government laws which, incredibly, went as far as trying to stiff the Authorities Budget Office, itself, as it prepared its caustic report.

With all of that, it is depressing – if not exactly shocking – to note that only two county legislators have called for the authority to be replaced by a county water department. Accomplishing that starts with the county Legislature sending a home-rule request to the county’s delegation in the state Legislature.

The county Legislature’s other members need to speak up. When they do, voters should be take note of whom they are favoring: the citizens who pay the freight or the political interests who, serving their own interests, would continue to abuse the authority.

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