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Finding new leader for Water Authority could be challenging

Wanted: New executive director for the Erie County Water Authority to replace a political patronage hire who was fired after intense public criticism.

Ideal candidate must be able to withstand intense public scrutiny, rehab the embattled agency's image, competently manage more than 200 employees and still provide 70 million gallons of clean, safe drinking water every day.

Pay is pretty good but may not be guaranteed for more than a year.

Finding a strong candidate to lead the Erie County Water Authority will be hard – especially now that authority commissioners are discussing how to tighten job requirements.

For decades, the authority has ignored, withstood, or implemented only minor, placating reforms in the face of negative publicity about how the public water utility has  provided well-paying jobs to party donors and the politically connected. Giving a plum, big-title job to a political friend was never hard before.

But this year could be different.

Authority leaders have been pushed out, fired, or now face threat of firing in light of a state report lambasting the authority's poor governance and lack of transparency. That report followed months of reporting by The Buffalo News about transparency failings and how former commissioner and Republican donor Earl Jann was given the executive director's job and generous salary guarantees under the radar.

The current authority board cannot afford hiring missteps this time around.

"I want to hire who's most qualified, and I don't want to be criticized," said Commissioner Mark Carney, who joined the Water Authority board in May.

Commissioners are under pressure to hire someone with demonstrated ability to run a complex and highly regulated organization with $400 million in assets or risk giving more ammunition to those seeking the agency's dissolution.

Given the authority's battered public image and perceived lack of stability, commissioners know they face obstacles to attracting a strong, well-qualified candidate, even as they say they are working to rebuild the agency's credibility.

"I think the negative press is going to, a little bit, suppress the pool of candidates," said Chairman Jerome Schad, who still faces the threat of termination by some county legislators for being the last remaining member of the authority's board leadership from prior years.

At the authority's last meeting, Carney and Schad spent much of their time discussing the job description for the next executive director. The draft description requires at least a bachelor's degree in engineering or management and 10 years of work experience, five of which must be in a top supervisory role.

Commissioners further discussed their desire to see a preferred candidate hold a master's degree in business, public administration, engineering or accounting and some prior experience in public utility work. They also debated the fine line between having high standards and making the qualifications flexible enough to not exclude strong candidates that don't check all the boxes.

The next job description is expected to be noticeably longer than the last one. Past job description language, which allowed Jann's hiring, permitted candidates without the requested experience to demonstrate "any equivalent combination of experience and training sufficient to indicate ability to do the work." That language has been removed from the latest draft.

While political connections and contributions were also a factor in past hiring positions for the executive director post, both commissioners contend that such connections with neither qualify nor disqualify a candidate this time around.

"It is not a political post," Schad said. "You need somebody who knows how to lead people."

A year ago, Schad agreed with former commissioners to hire Jann, who was set to earn $149,000 this year. Jann was a former Marilla town supervisor and pharmaceutical sales representative. Schad said Jann's knowledge of Water Authority operations and leadership style made him a good fit for the organization.

"My vibes were that he had enough of a set of skills there as a manager to make that work. Maybe that judgment was wrong … but I thought that was the right call at the time," he said.

Carney said the board would be spared some headaches if the next executive director had no political background. But given the close ties candidates may have in Buffalo, political connections shouldn't arbitrarily disqualify anyone, he said.

"In this situation, in my humble opinion, you would be better off if you didn't know anybody," he said.

Both commissioners are also wrestling with the fact that they cannot offer a multiyear employment contract to anyone under their understanding of the law. That makes the job less appealing. Carney said if the board was able to recruit some star from outside the region, some type of golden parachute shouldn't be completely off the table.

Schad, however, said that in the current climate, that kind of offer may be hard to swing.

"I'm not at all sure we can do that," he said. "It's the wrong climate that we're in. There's such a high level of distrust."

Schad and Carney aren't the only ones facing tough decisions regarding leadership of the Erie County Water Authority. On Thursday, the same day the commissioners were discussing the job description for the next executive director, county legislators were interviewing five candidates to fill the last vacant seat on the authority board.

The vacant seat cannot be filled by a Democrat since both Schad and Carney are Democrats. No more than two commissioners on the three-member board can come from the same party.

Of the five candidates interviewed, former Amherst town attorney E. Thomas Jones was questioned the longest, followed by former City of Tonawanda Mayor Ronald Pilozzi, both Republicans, and Clarence resident Alan Getter, who serves as assistant superintendent for the North Tonawanda City School District and has no party affiliation.

Like the current authority commissioners, legislators said they recognize the need to hold new authority board appointees to a higher standard. Several asked probing questions about how candidates dealt with disagreement and adversity, their commitment to transparency and how they led change within their organizations.

"We're looking at this with a very high-powered magnifying glass," said Legislator Edward Rath III, R-Amherst.

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