Editorial: Water Authority changes direction, but structure continues to invite corruption

Under the direction of a new board, the Erie County Water Authority seems to have adopted a new strategy: professionalism. Call us impressed, despite continuing concerns about the agency’s openness to political manipulation.

Instead of turning to yet another political hack with no relevant experience to run the $54 million operation, the authority’s commissioners have hired someone with actual expertise. H. John Mye III, an engineer and local chief financial officer, was the only area candidate to apply. This, even though he has no political background, no history of political contributions and no prior public employment.

That’s a change, for sure. It’s as though the commissioners were treating the authority with the importance of a business charged with safely and reliably delivering a critical product, essential to life. Imagine that.

It’s a welcome turn from the authority’s tradition, which has been to hire politically connected candidates for whom expertise was unnecessary and maybe even unwanted. The most recent leader, Earl L. Jann Jr., was a former pharmaceutical sales rep and town supervisor, for example. More to the point, he was a reliable donor to Republican causes – important since, at the time, Republicans controlled the county Legislature. Democrats have been no better.

The turning point came last year when then the state’s Authorities Budget Office issued a scorching report on the authority’s practices. In its aftermath, the board fired Jann, ruling his contract was invalid, including the portion that gave him a golden parachute whose purpose seems to have been to prevent a Democratically controlled Legislature from engineering his dismissal.

Now, in another welcome break with that practice, Mye has been hired with no contract and no golden parachute. What he got – and what may well be worth it, given his expertise – is a salary of $175,000, higher than any of the authority’s previous executive directors.

Significantly, Mye has publicly promised to resist political pressure. “The issue will come up – I know it will come up,” he said. “But I can only be straightforward … and say I won’t be influenced in that way.”

This is all good news, and the authority commissioners deserve credit for making these essential changes. But it doesn’t mean the authority shouldn’t be abolished in favor of a county department – which Mye could also run.

The fact is that the current commissioners have hired a professional. That’s a valuable change, but it doesn’t mean that another batch will do the same, once the politicians who have abused the agency for decades decide the heat is off. And even if they do, taxpayers should beware of new avenues of political corruption which, like water, always finds its way downhill.