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County legislators interview two water authority candidates

Michael Mroziak
Erie County Water Authority Chair Jerome Schad (right) tells lawmakers in October about the improvements he has made.

The annual struggle over who will serve on the board of the political patronage-riddled Erie County Water Authority continues, after an Erie County Legislature committee interviewed the two candidates for a three-year term on the board.

It became obvious this year would be a little different when one candidate for the board said the authority has to be dissolved into county government, a plan which would have to weave through a tangled political thicket in Albany and here. That was activist, engineer and lawyer Peter Reese.

"I believe we can fold this organization back in," Reese said. "The sewer districts are run and they are run extremely well because you have an excellent professional engineer, whose name I won't mention for fear that someone will run over and fire him, this afternoon, based on me praising him. I think one or two professional engineers could run this quite well."

The other candidate is current authority Chairman Jerome Schad, holding on to his post despite a major Albany agency's recommendation he be removed because the agency was run so badly. Schad told the board he and the other two commissioners have made productive changes.

Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News
Attorney Peter Reese is vying for Erie County Water Authority Commissioner.

"I suggest to this honorable body that the last thing that you want is disruption moving forward, when you have a clear sign of a new path for this authority," Schad said, "and I am proud to say that I'm helping get us down that path and I in tend to continue it if you are gracious enough to re-appoint me."

It is entirely possible Schad will get another term when legislators vote, probably on Thursday. Retiring Legislator Tom Loughran will probably vote no.

"Packing the Water Authority would just make the political process worse," Loughran said. "Folding it into a county department would certainly eliminate a lot of those political concerns and provide more accountability."

As a member of the Minority Caucus, Legislator Kevin Hardwick suported firing Schad. He has since moved to the Democratic side.

Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo admitted the authority is political and does not see getting rid of it as possible.

"I don't think you can get rid of it by absorbing it into Erie County, based on the fact that the debt service is just too large and I don't see any legal way to get that done," Lorigo said. "I think adding commissioners might be a way to do it, some way to do that's less political than it is now, but I haven't seen any real avenues yet to accomplish that."

Legislator John Bruso said he found both suggestions interesting.

"It's Albany's decision to make, but I will say both intrigue me," Bruso said. "Rolling it into the county has been talked about, not at length and concerned about cost and everything like that. But I would say this: What about the people of Buffalo? How do they take on the debt? How do they get their rates go up, all of that?"

As legislators point out, the authority is really a state agency and Albany would have to order any changes. Local control is appointing commissioners.

Paul Wolf, President of the Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government, expressed his disappointment about the process.

"At yesterday’s Committee meeting where applicants for the Erie County Water Authority were interviewed, no member of the public was allowed to speak, despite a request from the Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government, prior to the meeting," said Wolf in a statement. "The Erie County Legislature needs to establish a process for the public to be heard at their meetings. At every meeting there should be an opportunity stated on the agenda for public participation at Legislature meetings."

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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