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Former Water Authority Insider Speaks About Politics

A former Erie County Water Authority Commissioner talks about how politics rules the Authority.

"There's still this commitment by the local political bosses, the chairmen of the Democratic party, the Republican party to use the Erie County Water Authority as the ever present patronage pit," says Jack O'Donnell.

O'Donnell should know how the Water Authority works - he served a three year term there as one of the three commissioners who run the Authority.

O'Donnell, a Democrat, was a reformer who tried to bring savings and reduce the politics that permeate the Water Authority.

Now here's how and why the Erie County Republican and Democratic Chairmen have so much say over what happens, who gets hired, and why there's so many political patronage jobs at the Water Authority.

The chairmen hand pick one of their supporters to be a commissioner, send the name over to the Erie County legislature and the legislators, who usually depend on the party chairmen to be endorsed, then rubber stamp the selection.

O'Donnell became the first commissioner ever to be appointed by the legislature without the support of the party chairmen...

Scott Brown: "Would you get calls from the Democratic chairman saying so and so needs a job or what openings do you have?"

Jack O'Donnell: "So my relationship with the party bosses is not the sort where they're calling me a lot or I'm calling them, so I don't want to suggest that I'd get these calls, but you would hear from the other commissioners, this is chairman X's choice or this is chairman Y's choice and that's how you could tell it was coming."

Again three commissioners run the Authority, the other two who O'Donnell served with - one a Republican, the other a Democrat - would often work together when it came to who got hired there.

Scott Brown; " Is it fair to say there's a direct pipeline from the party chairmen to the commissioners?"

Jack O'Donnell: "I don't think there's any doubt that the people who are picking the patronage employees at the Water Authority are the Democratic chairman and the Republican chairman. They pick up the phone or send an e-mail or shoot a resume over and say this is who I have for you and then there's a trade, one time there's a turn for a Republican and then there's a turn for a Democrat and they make no bones about it."

Scott Brown: "So usually where Republicans and Democrats don't get along, at the Water Authority, it's I'll scratch your back, you scratch mine?"

Jack O'Donnell: "It's an insider's game at the Water Authority. They work together to further their own patronage."

Scott Brown: "What percentage of the workforce over there would you say is purely political?"

Jack O'Donnell: "I think if you readress the water authority, if you had three commissioners there who wanted to make change you could probably cut about 20% of that workforce.

Scott Brown: "That's a lot."

Jack O'Donnell:. "It is a lot, it is a lot. And honestly Scott that's one of the things I tried to do when I was there. In my three years, we were able to cut seven $85,000 or plus jobs, we were able to get rid of because we just didn't need them."

O'Donnell did have some other successes during his time at the Authority as well. Following an investigation by 2 On Your Side, the Authority took less space and got its rent reduced at its headquarters at the Ellicott Square Building, and the Authority also went to electronic billing which O'Donnell says saved one million dollars a year in postage.

Scott Brown: "You served your three year term and hoped to get reappointed, did you feel like you had a realistic shot at getting another three year term?"

Jack O'Donnell: "No I knew the fix was in from the beginning Scott, that I wasn't going to get reappointed but I went through the process because really there were a number of things we did during my three year tenure, things I fought hard for, things that I was proud of and I wanted to stand in front of those legislators and put that on the table, make them make a choice between a reform agenda, a rate payer agenda and someone who's the choice of the party bosses, and unanimously the legislators chose the party bosses."

The legislature picked attorney Chris O'Brien to replace O'Donnell - O'Brien was a major donor to the county's Democratic Chairman, Jeremy Zellner.

But O'Brien wound up resigning as a commissioner after less than a year on the job, a source close to O'Brien told us that he was disgusted by the politics that permeates the Authority.

To replace O'Brien the legislature chose Jeremy Schad - he's the Amherst Democratic Chairman and a major supporter of Zellner, the county Democratic Chairman...

Scott Brown: "What if anything is going to bring change over there, or is that a naive question?"

Jack O'Donnell: "The reality is it's the voters. These people who are paying the rates, who are paying for this patronage at the Water Authority they're electing these county legislators and I think they should start asking their county legislators why did you vote for this person, what are you doing about the water authority? 'Cause at the end of the day they're the ones who are empowering these bosses, they need the political bosses to get re-elected themselves, but it's time for some of the legislators to stand up and say we're not going to stand for this anymore. Am I naive enough to think it's going to change tomorrow, no but every one of those folks who calls their legislator and says I want change at the Water Authority, it's going to get closer."


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