For a while last summer, it looked like Jerome Schad's future at the Erie County Water Authority was toast.
A scathing June 2018 state report outlined transparency and governance failures at the authority and recommended removing all three board commissioners. The Erie County Legislature found itself under pressure to dump Schad, the only commissioner left who had served during the time period covered by the report.
But Schad pledged improvements, made a number of quick fixes and avoided getting fired.
With Schad now near the end of his term, the Democratic-controlled Legislature voted 6-5 Thursday to reappoint him to another three-year term.
Legislature Chairman Peter Savage, D-Buffalo, said the state report focused on issues involving the Open Meetings Law, the Freedom of Information Law and and dealing with the media.
"Those issues have been corrected," said Savage, who nominated Schad for the board seat. "They’re not perfect, there’s still more work to be done, but this applicant deserves the opportunity to move forward."
"This is not a move forward with Mr. Schad," responded Legislator Edward Rath III, R-Amherst. "This is a move backward with Mr. Schad."
Schad, who is also the Amherst Democratic Party chairman, can largely credit Legislator Kevin Hardwick for his reappointment. Hardwick has completed paperwork to change his affiliation from Republican to Democrat next year.
As a member of the Republican-supported caucus last year, Hardwick played a key role in allowing Schad to keep his seat. He sided with Democrats who felt there was no legal way to push Schad out of his job as long as Savage didn't call for his removal.
Hardwick, wary of potential legal expenses, pointed out that Schad's term would expire in April anyway. At the time, the City of Tonawanda legislator said he would never support Schad's reappointment.
But on Thursday, as a member of the Democratic caucus, he cast the swing vote for Schad.
"If you want to characterize that as a flip-flop, I wouldn’t disagree with that," Hardwick said.
In December, when he talked to Erie County Democratic Party Chairman Jeremy Zellner about joining the Legislature Democrats, Hardwick brought up that he was already on record saying he would not support Schad's reappointment.
"Not a problem," he recalled Zellner telling him.
But the next month, Zellner called and asked Hardwick to "keep an open mind." So Hardwick met with Schad at a Tim Hortons. Schad talked to him about the improvements he shepherded through at the authority.
Most of the criticisms in the state Authorities Budget Office report have been addressed, Schad said. That includes new policies and practices to promote transparency and most board business now being conducted in public and recorded.
"I had a good feeling about that meeting," Hardwick said. "Given the changes that have been made – I hesitate to say 'reforms' because sometimes that’s a difficult term to throw around with regard to the authority – but things have changed over there."
He said he would prefer the Water Authority become an Erie County department or special district, instead of the political patronage agency that it is. Since there's no political will for that, he said, "I think incremental changes are the best you can do."
Hardwick acknowledged Schad isn't blameless for the authority's past failings.
"He went along with with what the Republicans wanted to do, and I do criticize him for not speaking up," he said, referring to the time Republicans held the authority board's majority.
Schad faced a challenge from Democrat Peter Reese, a Buffalo lawyer who has two degrees in industrial engineering. Reese described himself as an unapologetic political activist who has been "fighting the machine for 51 years." The minority caucus recommended Reese.
"Given the choice between the two, I’ll take the industrial engineer," said Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo, C-West Seneca.
But Savage nominated Schad. Legislator Thomas Loughran, D-Amherst, a vocal critic of what he calls the "broken" authority, voted with the minority caucus against Schad.
Before the vote, the minority caucus asked to delay the vote and extend the period for receiving applications for the commissioner's seat, a position supported by the Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government. Caucus members also introduced a proposal to cut the pay of commissioners, currently $22,500.
"I’m not saying people shouldn’t get paid for their work," Lorigo said. "But I think we do need to have a conversation about how much these commissioners are getting paid when the authority has been so political, and really, so terrible for the past several decades."
Both proposals failed.
After the meeting, Schad said the water authority is now a more transparent organization than many surrounding municipalities. He said he intends to work on plans to replace the authority's aging infrastructure.