Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said Friday that the most direct way to depoliticize a "political beast" like the Water Authority is to expand its board from three members to seven members and grant them longer, staggered terms.
Also, the commissioners should be paid less, he said.
He also went on record saying he opposes the termination of Water Authority Chairman Jerome Schad. And, he doesn't think a county takeover of the Water Authority is the best way to reform it because of the complex legal, financial and logistical hurdles.
"It's not going to be easy," he said. "It can be done, but it's going to be more expensive to pay off the debt associated with the Water Authority."
There are easier ways to create a more transparent political organization, he said.
A larger and longer-serving board – like what exists now for the Erie County library system, Erie County Medical Center and Erie Community College – would dilute the influence of political party bosses on a water utility that serves half a million residents, he said.
Among his proposed changes:
- Increase the board size to seven members, with two appointments from the governor, two from the county executive and three from the County Legislature. Two members would still be appointed by the Legislature majority from the same political party, the way they are now.
- Appoint commissioners so that they would all eventually serve staggered five-year terms. The appointments would outlast the terms of currently elected officials.
- Cut the annual stipend to commissioners from $22,500 to $7,500. The Erie County Water Authority pays its commissioners more than any other water authority in the state. The state Authorities Budget Office generally recommends these positions be unpaid, but Poloncarz said the commissioners meet frequently and deserve some compensation for their time and effort.
- Require the authority to submit detailed financial and operational reports, including reports that outline hiring and firing of employees and third-party contracts, to the Legislature, county comptroller and county executive.
- Require the board to hold regular public hearings in County Legislature chambers, including some at night, to address ratepayer concerns.
- Prohibit the authority from entering into employment contracts for more than five years, and prohibit golden parachute provisions.
Legislature Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo, C-West Seneca, expressed skepticism that making the authority board bigger would reduce political influence.
"I think it's interesting he thinks that a way to make an already too-political board less political is by making more political appointments," he said. "It's a concerning idea. It's another way to add more patronage, which at the heart of things is really the problem."
"I think he's perpetuating a culture of corruption," added Legislator Thomas Loughran, D-Amherst. "I think he's missing the point about accountability."
Poloncarz's recommended changes would require the state to change the Erie County Water Authority's enabling statute. Poloncarz said he will spend the next few weeks trying to get the Legislature to approve a home rule request and find sponsors in the State Assembly and Senate to make the changes happen.
The Authorities Budget Office generally supports many of Poloncarz's recommendations, including the recommendation for a bigger board, said Mike Farrar, deputy director of the office. He said no other countywide water authority has only three board members.
"Adding more will tend to bring in more ideas, more viewpoints, more perspective, as well as make it easier to operate," Farrar said.
Poloncarz expressed support for Schad, who was asked to resign by the County Legislature on Thursday in a 6-5 vote. The Authorities Budget Office report released last week also called for Schad's removal. Farrar said the ABO's position remains unchanged.
But Poloncarz said Friday, "I have known Jerry Schad for a long time, including the time when I was not in government. I've always known him to be an ethical, honorable individual who would never do anything to put his law license at risk."
Lorigo responded, "The county executive supports virtually all of the ABO recommendations except for the removal of Jerry Schad. That's eyebrow raising."
Schad has made political contributions to him, but Poloncarz said he's raised more than $1 million overall.
"There's nothing hanging over me that says I have to keep Jerry on the board," he said.
Story topics: water authority