BUFFALO, NY-- The Erie County Water Authority Board of Commissioners fired the agency's Executive Director Earl Jann at their regular board meeting on Thursday.
The move comes two days after a state oversight agency released a scathing report on the water authority's transparency and accountability, during the time when Jann previously served as its board chairman.
However, current commissioners refuse to say if that was behind their move to cut Jann loose.
Instead they said they terminated Jann's contract, because it violated something called the term limits doctrine...which they claim prevents a board or authority from hiring someone to govern the agency, under a contract that would then overreach into the appointment of a subsequent board.
That is precisely what the current commissioners, who are Democrats, claim Republicans did before they lost control of the board in January, and gave Jann, a GOP stalwart, a 3 year contract to become Executive Director.
"You can't bond the future board members to someone that they may not agree with in terms of how they govern or run an agency," said Mark Carney, a democrat, who was appointed as a commissioner by the democrat controlled Erie County Legislature in March. "It doesn't matter whether we like someone or don't. If a contract is void, we have an obligation under the law to void that contract," Carney said.
For the same reason, commissioners on Thursday also voided the existing contract of Deputy Executive Director Robert J. Lichtenthal.
However, unlike Jann who was then fired from his job, the board is preparing to offer Lichtenthal a new contract in hopes he will stick around.
"I have a lot of faith in Robert Lichtenthal," said Board Chairman Jerome Schad. "He's a stabilizing force and very helpful to us particularly in our financial matters, and we are well served by his services."
When asked if Jann somehow did not serve the agency well, Schad demurred. "We are not going to discuss matters of employment or why someone was released," Schad said.
Jann's Golden Parachute
Appointments to the Erie County Water Authority Board of Commissioners have long been political. Whichever party controls the County Legislature controls the appointments to the board, and with them, the historical appointment of others to patronage jobs.
If Democrats were looking for a way to get rid of Jann, a Republican, they may think they just may have found it through the exercising of the term limits doctrine.
However, when Jann was signed to his three year contract as Executive Director before democrats took over in January, there was a protection clause in it, which called for him to be paid up to $400,000 if he was terminated.
While that be a matter of further legal maneuverings, Schad and Carney do not believe the Water Authority will have to pay Jann under this so called "golden parachute."
"We believe the contract was improper against public policy," said Schad. "Therefore," added Carney, "the terms of the contract are void."
The Erie County District Attorney's office is also investigating the Erie County Water Authority. According to the D.A.'s office, the "matter" has been assigned to the Assistant D.A. in charge of the Special Investigations and Prosecutions Bureau - which deals with matters of public integrity. Prosecutors will be contacting the Authorities Budget Office.