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Water Authority shuffle adds new member, retains current Chairman

Mike Desmond

The Erie County Legislature voted 10-1 Thursday to appoint former Amherst Town Attorney E. Thomas Jones to the Erie County Water Authority board. Jones, a Republican, is the third Amherst attorney to be on the three-member board. Meanwhile, five lawmakers failed - by one vote - to fire ECWA Board Chairman Jerome Schad.

Once the talk and the speeches ended, the ECWA had one new member and the same controversial chairman.

Going into the Legislature session, the state-created authority only had two members - both Democrats. By law, that meant the open seat had to go to a member of a different political party.

Nominated was former Amherst Town Attorney Thomas Jones, with two decades in office in the mammoth town before retirement. The minority had the pick of Republican candidates and, traditionally, the other party goes along.

Jones said he read the recent state Authorities Budget Office report that was critical of the ECWA and found it familiar.

"Just about every issue that they pointed out, because I've experienced it," Jones said. "When I first went to the Town of Amherst, they were operating, on some level, informally and we had to clean all that up and it was a process because the Town of Amherst was a highly visible town board. We had to clean that up because we were under public scrutiny."

The report was scathing about the way the ECWA has operated for many years. The state recommended removal of Schad, even though he was not present for most of the years discussed in the report.

Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News
Legislators Thomas Loughran (standing left) and Ed Rath (standing right).

Legislature Chairman Peter Savage (D-Buffalo) said all of the political maneuvering is not interfering with the water supply.

"In terms of the actual operations of the authority and the numerous hardworking men and women who work day in and day out at that authority to ensure that we are providing the highest quality water to the residents that they serve, they are hitting the mark," Savage said. "The issue has been the public accountability and transparency in terms of how they have dealt with the public."

Savage said he is not sure making the ECWA part of county government is a good idea, because of the debt involved and because the authority serves only some of the county. He said no constituent of his is served by the ECWA.

Legislator Patrick Burke (D-Buffalo) said the Jones appointment is a political process allowed by law.

"The cynic in me has a lot to say right now, but I would just like to explain my position on this vote rather than go down that rabbit's hole," Burke said. "We all acknowledge that there needs to be reform. We also all acknowledge that this is still an inherently political process. This is an appointment of, essentially, the Republican minority."

Legislator Edward Rath (R-Buffalo), who grew up in Amherst, praised the choice of Jones.

"The water authority has faced a lot of challenges over the past couple of years. I think today is a step towards the improvement at the water authority, with the appointment of Tom Jones to be one of our next commissioners," said Rath. "To echo some of the comments that were made earlier, we have an opportunity in a couple of minutes to also consider reform and improvements."

Legislator Thomas Loughran (D-Amherst) pleaded for Schad's removal as a sign change is coming.

"I want all my colleagues here to know that this is the time. This is our time. This is our moment to reform a system that everybody knows is corrupt, that everyone knows needs reform," Loughran said, "and we have the opportunity, here, today, right now, to start this process."

Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News
Legislators Ed Rath (standing left) and Joseph Lorigo (standing right)

However, that did not happen. There was not enough votes to bring onto the floor a removal of Schad - a removal backed by Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo (R-West Seneca).

"We had an opportunity today to remove Mr. Schad, a commissioner who was censured by New York State, and members of both legislative caucuses cut a backroom deal to keep that man in power," said Lorigo. "I hope Tom Jones will get there and do everything he can to reform that place, but you can bet that in every legislative session until I'm gone, I will attempt to move that item to remove Mr. Schad."

There is something of a dueling lawyers situation over the removal. As lawyers fight over how he can be removed, the state Public Authorities Law says the same body that appoints a member of the ECWA can remove that member, after due process.

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.
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