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The board of the Erie County Water Authority is set to install a Democratic political insider to oversee the public utility’s $61 million annual operation.

Robert F. Gaylord, a local banking industry executive who served as Collins Town Supervisor for nearly 20 years, will be appointed as the new executive director of the Water Authority when the Board of Commissioners meets today. Gaylord succeeds Robert A. Mendez, who vacated the post on Monday after officially retiring from the authority.

Francis G. Warthling, who is chairman of the three-member authority board, did not return a phone call from The Buffalo News Tuesday seeking comment on the commission’s plan to hire Gaylord, but Warthling did tout Gaylord’s qualifications for the post in a news release Wednesday.

“After an extensive candidate review process, we felt strongly that Mr. Gaylord had among the best qualifications based on his extensive record of accomplishments in the private and public sectors,” said Warthling, a Democrat from Lackawanna.

The two other commissioners on the board are Vice Chairman Earl L. Jann, a Republican from the Town of Aurora, and Democrat Christopher O’Brien of Amherst.

According to Brian A. Gould of e3communication, a spokesman for the water authority, Gaylord was the top pick among a field of eight candidates selected for interviews by the commissioners. Weeks before Mendez’s retirement, the Board of Commissioners sought the services of a human resources consulting firm, Performance Management Partners of Williamsville, to assist in the search for Mendez’s successor.

“This wasn’t a national search, so to speak. They used a local firm and all the candidates were Western New York-based candidates,” Gould said.

There is a long-standing perception that the water authority is a haven for political patronage, in which Democrats and Republicans alike divvy the spoils among the politically connected based, in part, on which party controls the Legislature. Despite that common understanding, Erie County Democratic Party Chairman Jeremy Zellner on Wednesday insisted that he had no direct influence on who is chosen to head the authority. “It’s the commissioners’ decision on who they want to hire,” Zellner said.

However, Zellner acknowledged that discussion of who the commission planned to hire did come up informally at Monday’s meeting of Democratic Party leaders in Lackawanna. Zellner said that occurred only because Warthling, who is chairman of the Lackawanna Democratic Party, and Gaylord, who heads the Democratic Party in Collins, both happened to be at that meeting. Gaylord also currently serves as a councilman on the Collins Town Board.

Mendez, who was first appointed as executive director in 1996, is a one-time campaign treasurer for former County Executive Dennis T. Gorski and a former county commissioner of senior services. He was earning a $154,000 annual salary prior to his retirement.

Under the terms of an employment agreement that Gaylord reached with the commissioners on Wednesday, he will be paid $130,000 in his first year, with two percent raises for each year after, if he decides to accept a renewal option for an additional two years. Should Gaylord be terminated without cause, the contract calls for him to be compensated with one year’s salary. Gaylord is set to officially begin his duties on Nov. 15. Previous employment contracts with executive directors for the water authority offered exceedingly generous multi-year compensation packages in the event that an executive director was fired without cause. The executive director for the water authority is responsible for overseeing an operation with about 238 employees that provides water to more than 550,000 people in Erie County’s suburbs.

email: hmcneil@buffnews.com