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Buffalo News Story on Water Authority Reform

Water authority vacancy a good time to talk reform

The upcoming appointment of a new commissioner for the Erie County Water Authority is as good a time as any to talk about reforming the whole process.

The leading candidate for the job, attorney Christopher J. O’Brien, may have been well-intentioned when he talked about the idea of studying the size of the Erie County Water Authority, but, let’s face it, that’s what some of those before him announced as they took their own politically padded seats on the authority.

County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw said he’s planning a review on the Water Authority’s hiring, including how job openings and civil service exams are posted. The goal would be to create a “one-stop shopping” website where all county positions are posted publicly. In addition, the office plans on comparing salaries to those of water authorities across the state. We’ll anxiously await his findings.

Meanwhile, O’Brien has offered his opinion on the current status of the Water Authority. He has the support of Democrats on the Erie County Legislature to replace John O’Donnell as a Water Authority commissioner. It’s a three-year term that pays $22,500 for a part-time position. It isn’t the salary that makes the job attractive; it’s the access to patronage jobs that makes the commissioners powerful players in Erie County.

Nine people submitted resumes for the latest opening, some of them probably thinking they had a shot at the appointment even though they had no political connections. That thinking may have stemmed from a new policy the authority instituted last fall to advertise all job openings on its website before they are filled, or “officially” filled. In this case, O’Brien and O’Donnell are the only real candidates. Like the old commercial said, “Silly rabbit …”

This is not to unfairly single out O’Brien, a trial attorney who has served on the University at Buffalo Council since 2007, or question his sincere desire for public service.

But O’Brien, a big political donor, is also part of the system he’s saying should be studied.

O’Donnell himself is a political thoroughbred, and an Albany lobbyist. His background is infused with the most political of ties.

O’Donnell, seemingly dismayed over being replaced upon the expiration of his term in April, lashed out at county Democratic Party leaders. He claimed they wanted to have him replaced because he has pushed for change within the authority.

We don’t disagree with O’Donnell’s assessment that there is no Democratic or Republican way to deliver water. And, yes, there should be a change to the culture that has seen jobs go to those with political ties. A good example of that is Rob Poloncarz, a chef by trade who was transformed into contract monitor for the Water Authority. Rob Poloncarz happens to be the brother of Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz.

Let’s take it one step further and agree that there should be professional, rather than political, oversight of the agency, which is responsible for getting water to some 550,000 people in Buffalo’s suburbs.

Until that happens, the authority’s customer base may be declining but its political culture will be alive and well.

Source: Buffalo News
Published: 02/19/2013
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