With this week’s abrupt resignation of Christopher J. O’Brien from the Erie County Water Authority Board of Commissioners, speculation ran rampant Thursday about who the Democrats in the County Legislature might choose to replace him.
The name of Leonard R. Lenihan, former chairman of the county Democratic Party, has quickly moved to the top of the list.
But Lenihan wasn’t saying anything one way or the other Thursday. When asked directly if he is interested in securing a seat on the three-member board, Lenihan deflected the question, noting that he was driving at the time and could not talk. Later, he was unavailable for comment.
Meanwhile, Democrats are acting swiftly to fill the seat. The clerk of the Legislature on Thursday was authorized to post a public notice that Legislature Chairwoman Betty Jean Grant, D-Buffalo, is soliciting résumés and letters of interest from prospective candidates from the general public.
The deadline for submission is next Friday.
Three days later, on Nov. 18, lawmakers will conduct interviews with the candidates in public session during a meeting of the Legislature’s Energy and Environment Committee.
Although required by the Legislature’s Rules of Order, the interviews generally are regarded as a formality, since the long-held practice is that Water Authority board members are selected from the ranks of the politically connected.
Lenihan, 65, led the county Democratic Party for a decade before stepping down last year. Prior to that, he represented the Town of Tonawanda in the Legislature from 1976 to 1996, serving as chairman of the Legislature throughout the 1990s. He was appointed Erie County personnel commissioner in 1996 by then-County Executive Dennis T. Gorski.
During his tenure as party chairman, Lenihan was credited with putting the county organization on a sound financial footing and overseeing the election of Democrats to three seats in Congress.
Lenihan also steered the election of Mark C. Poloncarz as the first Democratic county comptroller in more than 30 years and engineered the first-ever supermajority of Democrats in the Legislature in 2005.
As a result of Tuesday’s elections, the Democrats will officially be the minority party in the Legislature for the first time in more than 35 years as of Jan. 1. Therefore, time is of the essence for the Democratic majority to fill the Water Authority board seat left vacant by O’Brien, who had nearly 2½ years left on his three-year term on the board, which is set to expire in April 2016.
Board Chairman Francis G. Warthling, the other Democratic commissioner, has a term that will expire in April 2015, while the term for the board’s lone Republican commissioner, Vice Chairman Earl L. Jann, will expires in April 2014.
By state statute, the Water Authority board must include members of both major parties, but the party that holds the majority in the Legislature generally seeks to appoint two of its members to the board.