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Editorial: Water Authority needs a change agent

Leaders of the Erie County Water Authority are probably right: Finding a new executive director is likely to be difficult in the midst of critical media coverage. Such is the storm that the authority unleashed through its own willful misconduct.

Nevertheless, the job can’t be avoided. The authority’s board needs to work diligently until it finds a professional who wants to take on what could be the career-making challenge of guiding a troubled organization into a new era.

And “new era” should be interpreted as meaning transformational: Whoever lands this job should understand that while he or she is being hired to lead the Erie County Water Authority, the ultimate task will be to bring about its dissolution and rebirth as a new organization: the Erie County Water Department.

That has to be the goal. It’s the only way to free the authority from the iron grip of dirty politics and, thus, the only way to reassure job applicants that they will not be subject to the same venal practices that conjured the storm now battering the authority.

To review: The Erie County Water Authority has been an unholy pit of patronage, in which high-dollar donors would be rewarded with lucrative positions – even if they had no qualifications for those jobs. Exhibit A is the authority’s recently fired executive director, Earl L. Jann Jr.

Jann was a generous donor to Republican causes and candidates but his professional background as a pharmaceutical sales rep and town supervisor offered no hint of the expertise that should be expected of someone hired to manage a sprawling, highly technical operation. Professionalism has to be the watchword when the essential task is reliably delivering safe, clean water to tens of thousands of customers at an affordable cost.

No one with his resumé should ever have been considered for the job – and wouldn’t have been in the private sector. That he could be hired traces to a metaphorical asterisk in the job qualifications for executive director, one that vests power in the county’s political bosses.

While the authority says its executive director should have “10 years of increasingly responsible and successful executive experience” in the field and should have graduated “from a college or university of recognized standing,” it also allows for “any equivalent combination of experience and training sufficient to indicate ability to do the work.” It’s a Lake Erie-sized loophole. Thus, Jann.

Some critics, including Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz, say the authority can be fixed by making changes to its structure: increasing the size of the board, lengthening and staggering members’ terms, and lowering the stipend. But that approach won’t work: It leaves the party bosses’ influence unmitigated, keeping the path clear to the same kind of abuses that have long afflicted the authority and will help to deter true professionals.

The time to change is now. The authority board needs to hire the person the organization requires: an ambitious professional who can lead the authority out of the political muck into a place where it operates as a professional department, directly accountable to Erie County’s elected officials – whether they want it or not.

It wouldn’t be the first time an authority has been dissolved in New York and it probably wouldn’t be the last. It just needs to be next.

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