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Water Authority board shortens contract for its highest-paid administrator

The Erie County Water Authority board intends to shorten the employment contract for its deputy director, Robert J. Lichtenthal Jr., the authority's highest paid employee.

And it intends to revise the job description for the executive director, now that former director Earl L. Jann Jr. 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.

"I believe it is in the best interest of this organization to retain Mr. Lichtenthal, especially now that we do not have an executive director, under a one-year employment contract," said Commissioner Mark Carney.

"We need stability and leadership," added Chairman Jerome Schad. "I think Mr. Litchtenthal brings a lot to the table, and has for years."

Last Thursday, the two commissioners voided the employment contracts for both Lichtenthal and Jann, citing legal advice that past board decisions cannot bind the hands of future boards when it comes to matters of governance. Jann was fired after his contract was voided, leaving Lichtenthal to take on Jann's responsibilities until a new executive director is named.

Lichtenthal served on the authority board from 1996 to 2007, when he was appointed as deputy director. Prior to serving on the Water Authority board, he served as the administrator overseeing operations for the Village of Bergen in Genesee County. He holds a masters in business administration from the University at Buffalo.

Because Lichtenthal had already worked midway through his voided contract, the new, one-year contract really only shortens his prior contract term by nine months. It expires in June 2019.

Lichtenthal said after the meeting that he appreciates the board's continued confidence in him.

Meanwhile, the board is also looking into revising the job description for the next executive director. The existing job description has been criticized as including a vague clause that enables applicants without the appropriate experience to be appointed to the position. Schad said the authority is comparing its job description to the descriptions used by other water authorities around the state.

The new job description needs to be specific enough to bring in candidates with the right qualifications but not so rigid that it's impossible to get a good candidate to apply.

"The debate is how much latitude do you want to give," he said.

Earl Jann fired as executive director of Erie County Water Authority

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