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Legislature calls on Water Authority chairman to quit, end culture of 'arrogance'

The fate of Erie County Water Authority Chairman Jerome Schad remains unclear, despite a majority vote by county legislators Thursday seeking his resignation.

Meanwhile, a week after firing Earl Jann Jr., the authority's former executive director, the Water Authority board has placed its faith in the deputy director, even after voiding and shortening his employment contract.

Here's what transpired Wednesday and Thursday:

  • After a heated, hourlong discussion, the Erie County Legislature voted 6-5 Thursday to call for Schad's resignation in light of a scathing report by a state oversight agency last week. The report by the Authorities Budget Office said every commissioner who served on the authority board in 2016 and 2017 should be removed and replaced.
  • Schad reiterated that reform of the Water Authority is underway under his leadership, so he will not resign.
  • Legislators Joseph Lorigo, C-West Seneca, and Thomas Loughran, D-Amherst, have submitted a separate resolution to fire Schad that will be considered at the Legislature's next meeting.
  • Water Authority commissioners agreed to shorten the employment contract for its deputy director, Robert Lichtenthal Jr., the authority's highest-paid employee, citing a legal requirement to limit his contract to one year.

At Thursday's contentious meeting, which involved one resolution, two amendments and a 10-minute recess, Loughran and members of the Republican-supported minority voted to support the resolution calling for Schad's resignation. The remaining members of the Democratic majority voted against it.

None of the legislators defended the criticisms laid out in the Authorities Budget Office report, but those against the call for Schad's resignation said the matter should be further aired in committee so that all legislators can ask questions and get answers before deciding what to do.

Some Democrats opposed to the measure pointed out that it was Republicans who were in control of the authority when egregious actions by the authority occurred in 2016 and 2017 and that Schad, a Democrat, has since made many improvements at the authority.

"My comments are not to defend any of the actions that are contained in the ABO report," said Chairman Peter Savage, D-Buffalo, who opposed calling for Schad to resign. "How about general fairness and due process? It's a nonbinding resolution at this point, right? What's the harm in allowing the guy to defend himself?"

He also pointed out that if Schad were to resign, the authority board would be left with only one sitting commissioner, which could threaten public safety since there would not be enough commissioners to approve any important Water Authority business.

Those calling for Schad to resign said it's based on the direct recommendation of an independent state oversight agency. They said any due process or discussion necessary was already undertaken by a yearlong audit by the Authorities Budget Office.

There's no reason for such heavily criticized activity to be allowed to continue, they said.

Legislator John Mills, R-Orchard Park, said there's every reason to act swiftly to end a culture of "arrogance."

"Ladies and gentlemen, that party is over," Mills said. "It's over. I've had enough of it. My colleagues have had enough of it. There's a culture at the Water Authority that has to be broken and eliminated immediately."

Schad has repeatedly indicated he has no intention to resign, but will attend a Legislature committee meeting next week to address concerns raised by legislators and the ABO report. The committee meeting is also expected to review the feasibility of turning the authority into a county department.

Loughran and Lorigo, expecting Schad's refusal to resign, submitted a new resolution saying the Legislature "hereby removes Commissioner Schad from his position."

It would be considered at the Legislature's next regular meeting.

Legislator Patrick Burke, D-Buffalo, expressed outrage at the temerity of the Republican-supported minority to call for the resignation of an authority board Democrat, when the worst offenses by the authority occurred while the Republicans held the board majority.

Legislator Kevin Hardwick, R-City of Tonawanda, however, said the recommendation made by the Authorities Budget Office is independent and apolitical.

"This apolitical body, in its audit dated June 8, 2018, makes 20 recommendations to the authority itself. It makes one recommendation to this body," he said. "It recommends that the County Legislature terminate, or that the County Legislature causes to be replaced, the one remaining commissioner, Jerry Schad. And I think we should respect that. I think we should abide by that."

"The only people talking politics here today are the Democrats," Lorigo said in pushing for Schad's removal.

Meanwhile, the Water Authority board said Wednesday it intends to shorten the employment contract for its deputy director, Lichtenthal, the authority's highest-paid employee.

And it intends to revise the job description for the executive director, now that Jann has been fired.

Last year, the authority board approved a three-year contract for Lichtenthal, a veteran administrator who receives a $200,100 salary and was on track for raises of $6,000 a year through April 3, 2020. That salary far exceeds the salaries given to the authority's last two executive directors, Jann and Robert Gaylord.

The contract for Lichtenthal was criticized in a report recently released by the Authorities Budget Office. It pointed out that the authority approved a 36 percent increase in Lichtenthal's salary without any recent evaluation of his job performance. The authority later acknowledged that Lichtenthal's contract was voted on and approved by the board without the matter appearing on the agenda posted to the authority's website the day before.

The voided contract entitled Lichtenthal to receive all the compensation from his three-year employment contract if he were terminated without cause. It also allowed Lichtenthal to collect and cash out an unlimited amount of unused vacation time. The new contract does not.

Commissioners said Wednesday that Lichtenthal continues to have their full support and that the only reason his contract will be shortened is because the law does not permit a longer contract.

"We need stability and leadership," Schad said. "I think Mr. Lichtenthal brings a lot to the table, and has for years."

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