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Editorial: Poloncarz's ideas for Water Authority reform won't float

Give Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz credit for thinking about the problems at the Erie County Water Authority, but his solution won’t work. Instead of reforming it, his proposal would expand the opportunities for patronage and keep the political bosses in charge. If it’s not a sleight of hand maneuver meant to protect the status quo, it will almost surely have that effect.

Poloncarz announced his suggestion last week while the Erie County Legislature was following its own rabbit trail: whether to push for the dismissal of Jerome Schad, the chairman of the authority’s board.

In that, legislators are directing attention to the wrong goal, which must be the dissolution of the Water Authority in favor of a county water department. That’s the only approach that offers any hope of reforming an agency whose structure was designed for political manipulation – and produces it.

Poloncarz would tinker with the existing structure by expanding the board to seven members from three, lengthening and staggering their terms and reducing the stipend to $7,500 from $22,500. If that would offer any improvement, it would be marginal, at best. Purposely or not, it preserves a corrupt system in the way that Albany long ago perfected: Nibble around the edges of a real problem, declare victory and get back to your nasty business.

It’s not enough. It won’t keep the bosses from hiring unqualified leaders, such as the authority did when it promoted a generous Republican donor, Earl L. Jann Jr., as executive director. Democrats have been no better. What is needed is a county department, directly accountable to elected officials, subject to the rules of open government and required to hire professionals.

Poloncarz notes, correctly, that there are hurdles to such a change. One obstacle is the matter of the authority’s debt and other liabilities. But noting a problem doesn’t make it insurmountable: a garbage authority was created and then abolished in Central New York. It can be done. County leaders need to focus on how to make this work, understanding that the existing system isn’t fixable.

That’s why county legislators must take care not to become overwhelmed by the matter of Schad’s continued service as chairman. That issue arose with the scathing criticism delivered by the state Authorities Budget Office which detailed the Water Authority’s many abuses. It called for the dismissal of every commissioner who served during the period covered by the report. Jann was one of them, before he was promoted to executive director. So was Schad. Jann was fired earlier this month but Schad remains and says he has no plan to leave voluntarily.

Schad has many defenders, including Poloncarz, who described the chairman as honorable and ethical. We have no reason to dispute him, only to observe that the authority would do better with a clean slate of commissioners. The past needs to be left behind.

But county legislators need to keep the main thing the main thing, and Schad isn’t it. He should go for the sake of institutional hygiene, but legislators are falling into a trap if they focus on that issue at the expense of the big picture: the need to abolish this politically driven, mismanaged public agency.

Make it a county water department. That’s the solution. Focus on that and the Schad issue will solve itself.

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