Local lawmakers have rushed to stake out the high ground and demand reform ever since a state oversight agency condemned the Erie County Water Authority last week for its secrecy and lack of accountability. But the political divisions that have typified the deep-rooted problems with the patronage-driven authority are showing up in the rush to demand change and assert blame.
- The county Legislature's Republican-supported minority submitted a resolution Tuesday calling for the removal of Water Authority Chairman Jerome Schad, a Democrat. No Democrats agreed to co-sponsor the resolution except Thomas Loughran, of Amherst, the Legislature's most vocal critic of the authority in recent years.
- Democratic Legislator Patrick Burke, of Buffalo, who is running for state Assembly, has accused the Republican-supported minority of engaging in a "partisan hit job" on Schad after Republican donor Earl Jann was fired from his post as the authority's executive director. Burke has called on the county Comptroller's Office to report back on whether it is financially possible for the county to take over the authority as a county department.
- Meanwhile, Schad said he isn't going anywhere, and County Executive Mark Poloncarz announced he has his own ideas about how to reform the authority.
Six of 11 Erie County legislators Tuesday called for Schad's resignation. Schad served on the authority board in 2016 and 2017, the time period that was heavily criticized for poor governance and transparency by a state oversight agency.
"I want to end the culture of corruption, and this action will freeze the game of musical chairs," Loughran said.
But Schad said he has no intention of resigning, saying the positive work the board has undertaken since he became chairman in May should move forward.
"I do not intend to resign," he said. "I've got the chance to continue some reform work at the authority, and I'm going to keep on doing it."
Meanwhile, Poloncarz said that since the scathing report by the Authorities Budget Office was released, his office has been working with county lawyers and the Authorities Budget Office researching what measures can be taken to reform the agency.
"I will soon be offering a set of reforms to ensure the Water Authority, an entity created in 1950, meets the standards expected of government today," Poloncarz said in a Twitter statement Tuesday afternoon.
Today I joined staff and legal counsel on a long but very productive conference call with the NYS Authorities Budget Office regarding issues related to the @ECWAuthority and the potential to reform it. Very soon I will be releasing my ideas. See below for my full statement - pic.twitter.com/4inJ8OpDpT
— Mark Poloncarz (@markpoloncarz) June 19, 2018
The sudden rush to act on the Authorities Budget Office report comes after The Buffalo News' coverage of the agency's transparency failings, secretive governance and political patronage hiring practices.
The Legislature resolution seeking Schad's resignation will be brought for Legislature consideration and a possible vote Thursday.
"It is a determination of this body that all Commissioners of the Erie County Water Authority censured in the Authorities Budget Office report should tender their resignations immediately," the resolution reads.
Two Republican commissioners who served in 2016 and 2017, Robert Anderson and Karl Simmeth Jr., have already left the three-member board. Schad, a Democrat, now serves as board chairman. Jann, who was fired as executive director by the authority board last week, previously served as board chairman until May 2017.
Jeffrey Pearlman, director of the Authorities Budget Office, told The News that the state's Public Authorities Law makes it clear that the Legislature is empowered to fire water authority commissioners.
The state's Public Authorities Law says commissioners may be removed by "the public officer or public body" that appointed them for reasons of "inefficiency, breach of fiduciary duty, neglect of duty or misconduct in office."
It remains unclear if only Legislature Chairman Peter Savage can call for a commissioner's removal or if any legislator can do so.
Savage did not return a request for comment Tuesday but issued a general statement saying that he would "look forward to discussing these issues in a public and transparent manner."
The resolution seeking Schad's resignation has been submitted for consideration at Thursday's Legislature meeting.
"I would be shocked if anybody opposed it," said Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo, C-West Seneca.
When asked if the resolution could be seen as a political move to force a Democratic commissioner off the authority board, Lorigo said politics is not the issue. He cited the highly critical report released by the Authorities Budget Office, which recommended that the Legislature remove all authority commissioners who served over the last two years.
"If this report came out, and any of the Republican commissioners were still sitting on that board, I would be doing the exact same thing to remove them," Lorigo said. "This is not about politics. This is about ratepayers and citizens of Erie County who have been hoodwinked by Water Authority commissioners who have sat there for the past several years, and any commissioner still serving from that era needs to go."
Lorigo said Schad was clearly complicit in bad decision-making over the last several years.
Loughran said he had not asked his Democratic colleagues how they intend to vote on the call for Schad to resign.
"I don't know where my Democratic colleagues are at," he said. "But what rational person could read that ABO report and not act on its recommendations or support the recommendations?"
Both Lorigo and Loughran said they will push to have Schad fired if he doesn't resign.
Other members of the Democratic majority have pushed back against what they describe as the newfound enlightenment of a Republican-supported minority that remained largely silent while the then-Republican-controlled Water Authority board governed under what was described in the ABO report as "a veil of secrecy."
Burke issued a statement Tuesday saying the authority is "plagued by decades of chronic mismanagement."
But he added, "The people of Erie County deserve a sober conversation about the process to reform the Authority – whether it is dissolving the Water Authority and merging it into county government or some other process. Unfortunately, the Republicans in the Legislature, who sat silent while their cronies oversaw the most secretive and clandestine period in the Authority's history, are offering little more than a partisan hit job in retribution for the well-deserved firing of former Commissioner and Executive Director Earl Jann."
Since Schad became board chairman and Mark Carney joined as a commissioner in May, the authority has taken steps to become more open and transparent, working to make more information available on its website, holding lengthy and deliberative meetings in public to discuss authority matters and becoming more responsive to public requests for information.
Critics, however, say that since the draft findings of the Authorities Budget Office have been known to Schad and Carney since May, this change in behavior is not surprising. Loughran faulted both Schad and Carney for not releasing the ABO draft report as soon as they received it last month.