Recent improvements at the Erie County Water Authority are a good sign, even if the bar is set low and even though the authority still needs to be abolished. It’s like an alcoholic who wants to drink less, but lives in a tavern.
What the authority has done is to take steps to obey the law. That’s something most New Yorkers do every day, but for the authority, it represents a radical change. For years, it had no interest in abiding by laws on open government, public records and more.
That was among the conclusions of a report issued in June by the state Authorities Budget Office, which cited the organization for chronic failures to meet basic standards of transparency and governance. Among them were repeated failures to take proper actions on requests filed under the state Freedom of Information Law, which as the name suggests, is a law, not a suggestion.
The twin pieces of good news are that the authority performed its own internal audit and, when results tracked those identified by the state report, took steps to do better. The bad news is that its organizational structure remains unchanged and primed for political abuse.
For example, the internal audit found that the authority repeatedly failed to properly respond to FOIL requests made by The Buffalo News, local TV stations, private companies and the public. When it did respond, it routinely did so later than the law requires and with incomplete information. In several instances, it did not respond at all.
The violations were so egregious and common — and the authority had so much to hide — that it was hard to believe it was mere accident. Rather, it looked like policy of concealment.
For example, the authority told a News reporter last year that the following day’s meeting agenda included no plan to hire Earl L. Jann Jr. as executive director. But the item was surreptitiously added to the agenda and the board did, in fact, hire Jann, an unqualified but politically connected candidate, to lead the agency. Later, it gave him a golden parachute worth up to $400,000 if he were fired. He was fired, anyway, in the aftermath of the state’s scathing report.
And, yet, things have improved. The authority’s internal audit shows that of five requests that technically failed to meet legal requirements in 2017, three were minor and information was provided.
Even better, the authority no longer demands formal FOIL requests for all matters. Instead, common pieces of public information are either posted on the authority website or just given to callers who ask for it.
“Why make people jump through hoops if the information is available?” Secretary Terrence McCracken said. “Let’s just get the information out, whether it’s good, bad or indifferent.”
That’s a policy that other public agencies in New York should follow. The Freedom of Information Law is supposed to be a tool for the public, not a shield for obstinate public officials.
The bottom line is that the authority made a decision and put systems in place to support it. It’s a measure of how bad that agency was that these actions look like significant improvement.
None of this changes the fact that the authority needs to be abolished. Its structure makes it a political tool for politicians and party bosses. That hasn’t changed, and the people pulling the strings won’t willingly let them go.
These changes have been led by the authority’s new chairman, Jerome Schad, a holdover from the bad old days. He should have been gone for that reason, even given any improvements he has made. But the chairman of the Erie County Legislature refused this week to pull the trigger, despite a narrow vote of the Legislature calling for Schad to be fired.
But arguments over Schad are a sideshow. It’s good that the authority is obeying the law more frequently, but it remains a political plaything. It needs to be abolished and recreated as a department of county government. That won’t shield it entirely from the abuses of politicians, but it’s the best solution available. When will someone act?