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Water Authority leaders mount defense against Legislature critics

In what could best be described as an exercise of endurance, Erie County Water Authority leaders spent nearly three hours defending and explaining their actions before the county Legislature in the aftermath of a scathing state report outlining numerous transparency and governance failings.

They admitted making mistakes and taking "shortcuts," but they pushed back against suggestions that they aren't capable of reforming themselves.

Some legislators seemed more willing than others to give authority leaders the benefit of the doubt.

Most legislators made calm but pointed criticisms, but the meeting yielded few clear answers as to how the Legislature should move forward. The question of whether the authority should be merged into a county department was barely touched. Neither did the board extensively discuss whether authority Chairman Jerome Schad should be fired.

In his first appearance before the county Legislature, Schad reiterated the many positive changes the authority has made in the six weeks since he became chairman. He acknowledged that he voted with the majority in decisions that favored secrecy over transparency, saying he'd prefer to persuade than confront.

"I tried to pick my battles, and I was a realist about the votes," he said.

Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo, C-West Seneca, subjected Schad to a cross-examination about why Schad rarely disagreed with the two Republican commissioners who comprised the board majority for the last several years. He pointed out that the Legislature's own minority is often more vocal than the majority. Schad had the same opportunity and obligation to speak up, Lorigo said.

"You have a duty to bring things to public light," he said. "You didn't."

He later called the nearly three-hour meeting "a calculated charade to protect Mr. Schad."

Schad responded that no vote he took with the prior majority ever weakened the authority's core mission of providing clean, safe water to its customers.

Authority Commissioner Mark Carney said any effort to have Schad removed from his position would be a grave mistake, especially now that some reforms are now underway.

"If you take away Commissioner Schad for some show, then you're doing a disservice to the authority, and you're doing a disservice to the ratepayers," Carney said. "You want me to do a job, I'll do it. I can't do it without the man sitting next to me. He's the man who's led the charge for the last six weeks."

Authority leaders referred to critical stories about the authority in The Buffalo News, saying that some of that coverage was understandable and justified, but that changes are clearly being made.

Legislator Patrick Burke, D-Buffalo, said it's disingenuous to say that the Water Authority should not be political or have political patronage, when it's a reality both at the authority and at the Legislature. What should matter is whether the people hired are competent, regardless of political connections.

"I don't want to hear things aren't political," he said. "They are. Let's be adults and accept that."

He also criticized the prior Republican commissioners who were invited to attend Thursday's committee meeting but did not attend.

Legislator Edward Rath III, R-Amherst, said he wanted a follow-up report on how the authority is complying with the 20 recommendations outlined by the Authorities Budget Office. Energy and Environment Committee Chairman John Bruso, D-Lancaster, expanded that request to say he wanted a complete response to all issues raised in the state report.

Schad said that would be provided.

Authority leaders blamed many of the criticisms of the report on a flawed governing structure, with the authority board being limited to three members, and with too many duties and responsibilities being consolidated into one position. This referred to the joint position of authority secretary/general counsel, who was responsible for the initial handling of many public information requests. The position was previously held by Joseph Burns, who has been reassigned.

The authority board separated the two job titles and named former judge and Democratic fundraiser Margaret Murphy as its new general counsel Thursday morning. She will make an annual salary of $157,762.

At the Legislature committee meeting, Murphy gave an uninterrupted, nearly 45-minute minute defense of the commissioners. Paging through the report, she said commissioners were unaware that information was being withheld from the Authorities Budget Office when it was examining authority transparency and accountability.

She also said the ABO incorrectly assumed that commissioners were rubber-stamping staff decisions without proper oversight. In reality, commissioners were getting that information by making individual requests or sitting in on staff meetings, sometimes in violation of the Open Meetings Law. Murphy acknowledged that information wasn't being shared during public board meetings.

The ABO also didn't raise any issues with the Water Authority's financial reporting, which have received awards for compliance, she stated.

Finally, in response to Legislature criticism that the authority board "sat on" the draft report from the ABO, Murphy said the state agency told the authority to keep the report confidential until it was finalized.

Murphy acknowledged that the authority has made mistakes, but said that the goal should be to learn from mistakes, move forward and "make something better."

"It's easy to tear something apart," she said. "It's a lot harder to build it."

Legislator Thomas Loughran, D-Buffalo, criticized Murphy for not addressing the need for consequences.

"In that 45 minutes, you didn't address one consequence of that report," he said. "You didn't address that this is a broken system."

Bruso also said Water Authority leaders should expect to be called back before the Legislature in the near future.

"I believe in accountability," he said. "We most certainly will be asking you back again. But if we're going to do it. Let's do it right."

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