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The Erie County Water Authority has made a regular practice of filling jobs without advertising for candidates.
That word-of-mouth policy has led to hiring or promotions this year, not just of the county executive's brother, but also of a former Orchard Park Town Board member, the sister of the fiancée of the county Republican Party chairman, a Democratic campaign worker and a former Democratic candidate for the Assembly.
The Water Authority has filled 14 positions this year but has not advertised those openings. Instead, commissioners have relied on a network of people they know and applications they already had on file to fill the jobs in many cases - a practice they said they would consider changing after criticism over the number of politically connected people on the payroll.
Recently hired or promoted workers with ties to politically influential people include:
. Edward A. Betz, an attorney who has been active in Democratic political campaigns, was promoted last month on a temporary basis to serve as associate attorney at a salary of $117,877. Betz previously worked in the Law Department at Buffalo City Hall and has managed local political campaigns.
. Stanley A. Jemiolo Jr., a former Orchard Park Town Board member who was deputy parks commissioner under then-County Executive Chris Collins, was hired in March as an administrative assistant in the Purchasing Department at a salary of $53,466.
. Amy E. Garcia, the sister of the fiancée of Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy, was hired as a confidential secretary to the executive director at a salary of $55,132 in June on a provisional basis until a civil service exam can be held.
The Buffalo News reviewed the Water Authority payroll after the agency last month hired Robb Poloncarz, a former chef and the brother of County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz, on a provisional basis for a vacant job of contract monitor without advertising for the position or waiting until a civil service exam could be held.
Two commissioners Thursday defended the way they have filled jobs but said they would consider setting up a more formal process in which open jobs are advertised so that a wider pool of applicants can be considered. "The thing is we have a $60 million operation that we're running here," said Earl L. Jann Jr., the authority's vice chairman. "And, frankly, we have a very good workforce, a very efficient workforce."
The Water Authority for years has been criticized for the number of people who are politically connected who work at the agency, which is run independently from county government and is funded through the water it sells to residents and commercial customers.
The News has previously reported that some of the authority's top-paid jobs went to people with political ties. Those have included Executive Director Robert A. Mendez and Deputy Director Robert J. Lichtenthal. Mendez, a onetime campaign treasurer for former County Executive Dennis T. Gorski, is a former county commissioner of senior services. He currently makes $154,630. Lichtenthal, a former village administrator, was a Water Authority commissioner before becoming deputy director at a salary of $137,712.
Jann and Water Authority Chairman Francis G. Warthling said attention to recent hirings has overshadowed efforts to make the authority more efficient - including paring down the staff as retirements occur, reducing the space the authority leases for its downtown headquarters, ending a lease for the authority's water quality lab and developing a plan to take down two unused water tanks.
"Quite frankly, it disturbs us that the authority gets all negative press over a couple of hires versus all the positive things that we're doing that never are disseminated to the public," Jann said.
The Water Authority has reduced its workforce by roughly 100 jobs in recent years. This year, officials said, the agency has had 15 people retire and has hired 14 people with a savings of more than $200,000.
As a public agency, the authority is required to follow state civil service laws that dictate how positions can be filled.
It can, however, fill jobs on a provisional basis before civil service exams are held - instead relying on applications on file or that have been submitted based on word-of-mouth.
"Everywhere I go, we get resumes handed to us," Warthling said. "So we have those all on file, and we do review applications and resumes if we do have an opening."
The provisional hires must meet the minimum qualifications and will have to eventually take the test and receive one of the top three scores to remain in their positions.
"Most people aren't going to wait to leave their job on the gamble - and that's what it would be - that they'll be in the top three of the civil service test," Jann said.
Other jobs, including two distribution engineers hired this year, do not require that a civil service exam be held because of the professional requirements of the position. The commissioners, from a pool of résumés on file, hired Leonard F. Kowalski and Russell J. Stoll this year. Kowalski, of Lackawanna, has run in several local elections, including a 2008 Assembly challenge.
The commissioners also pointed to a recent outreach effort with seminars to explain to the public how to take a civil service exam for a job opening of plant operator trainee. More than 500 people took the civil service exam after that initiative, said Matthew J. Baudo, secretary to the authority and personnel director.
Other positions, the commissioners contend, need to be filled more quickly than they could be if the authority advertised or waited until a civil service exam is held.
For example, Jann said, Jemiolo was hired based on his experience developing an inventory system when he worked as deputy county parks commissioner. Jann said he sought Jemiolo for the job after discovering one of the Water Authority's work sites lacked inventory control - a situation he felt needed to be addressed immediately.
"He developed his own inventory systems with the county," Jann said. "And as a result, he has the type of experience that you can't just go out and advertise for. It would be very difficult to do that."
But Warthling also said there are advantages to hiring through a network of people.
"I own my own business, a jewelry store," Warthling said. "A lot of time, when I'm doing my own hiring, I feel very comfortable with recommendations from family, friends, even myself, if I know someone for a while, who's going to come into my business with good work ethics, that I can trust them to do the job."
In those cases, he said, "it's a lot easier than hiring a stranger that you're just gambling on."