It looks like Governor Andrew Cuomo and the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) did not want a mandatory invasive species boat inspection and control program on Lake George. Governor Cuomo and the DEC tried to fire Dave Wick, the executive director of the Lake George Park Commission (LGPC), and on both accounts, Cuomo and the DEC seem to have lost.
On Tuesday evening, November 25th, news broke that the Cuomo Administration had backed down and agreed to suspend Wick without pay for two weeks and then let him return to his job. It apparently had nothing to do with a gas spill – the original pretense for Wick’s firing.
It should have been easy. The news was delivered on Friday afternoon November 14th. The Governor’s staff told the LGPC Chair Bruce Young that its executive director was damaged goods who had broken the law and that they should get him to resign and go away quietly. The Governor’s Office used the pretense of an unreported gas spill involving Wick’s use of a DEC boat at the DEC’s Green Island maintenance center. An acting executive director from the DEC had already been selected. Friday afternoon is when these things go down.
But Dave Wick refused to go. LGPC chair Bruce Young consulted the Board and after Wick plead his case, a majority of the Commissioners backed him. It appears as though Young was caught between the Governor’s Office and his Board of Commissioners.
On Monday November 17th word hit the street. The Glens Falls Post Star broke the story that the Governor’s Office refused to comment with specifics, citing a personnel matter. The Post Star‘s report that Wick’s firing stemmed from a spill of a gallon of gas was met with incredulity from local leaders queried by the press. The response from the initial press reports showed that the Cuomo Administration had lost control of the narrative.
First thing on Tuesday November 18th Basil Seggos, Governor Cuomo’s top environmental deputy, came to the LGPC office to meet with a hastily arranged quorum of the Commissioners. This was not a publicly advertised meeting and it did not follow public meetings law. Seggos told the Commissioners that they might have control of when he leaves, but make no mistake Wick was finished. The LGPC agreed to place Wick on paid administrative leave while it considered its options. They agreed to meet with their attorney on Friday.
The Albany Times Union, along with other media outlets, jumped on the story. The Governor’s Office offered no rational explanation. Neither did the LGPC. In the absence of an official, or plausible, rationale the area’s media sought comments from local leaders.
A wide swath of local government and environmental leaders came to Wick’s defense. They grew emboldened as the week went on. They all spoke about Wick’s dedication and effectiveness, and his public record as a local official for 20 years. Environmental groups lauded Wick’s success implementing the Lake George invasives control program, the first such program in New York. Assembly member Dan Stec was outspoken in his defense of Wick. They all brushed off the stated reason from the Governor’s Office about the gas spill and demanded an explanation of the real reasons behind the effort to fire Wick.
When Wick took the job it was clear that local government leaders already wanted an invasive control law. Dennis Dickinson had campaigned for such a law when he won his seat as Lake George Town Supervisor in November 2011. Lake George Village Mayor Bob Blais had called for a law as had Bolton Supervisor Ron Conover. John Strough, current Queensbury Supervisor, called for a boat control law while a Town Board member. When Wick took the job at the LGCP in the spring of 2012, local government was out in front of the Commission. Allied with local elected officials, Lake George environmental groups were also on record in support of a Lake Tahoe style boat control program.
Privately, Lake George leaders groused that Wick was cooked. Nobody survives when a Governor, particularly this Governor, comes after you. They looked down the road to who might take over.
On Friday November 21st the LGPC met in executive session at the office of its attorney in Glens Falls. The Commissioners, apprised of their authority to hire and fire staff, agreed to extend Wick’s administrative leave. At the same time news broke about an ongoing investigation by the NYS Inspector General’s Office into the LGPC. By this time the gas spill had been pilloried by local leaders and the public and this investigation was seen as the Cuomo Administration doubling down to find a new justification to take out Wick. If the old adage that “there’s always something” proved true, the Inspector General would turn up something they could use to substantiate Wick’s firing.
By the end of the first week of this story news reports turned into editorials and news analysis. The Post Star wrote that in a choice between Cuomo or Wick they’d easily choose Dave Wick. The Associated press also picked up the story.
The LGPC monthly meeting was the following Tuesday, November 25th. For Wick supporters the timing could not have been better. The LGPC closes its monthly meetings with a public comment period. The agenda at the November 25th meeting was light and Commission business took about 20 minutes. Afterwards 30 speakers spoke for almost two hours in support of Wick. The LGPC Commissioners nodded in agreement throughout, with perhaps the exception of Robert Stegeman, DEC Region 5 Director, who seems to observers to have been enlisted by the DEC and Governor’s Staff.
The November 25th meeting ended with Kim Wick, Dave’s wife, tearfully thanking the crowd, which brought LGPC Chair Bruce Young to tears. The event was well-covered by local media. The Post Star and Times Union gave it extensive coverage and WMHT’s “New York Now” reported the whole affair.
Within hours, the Governor’s Office announced it was backing off. It appears they wanted the story to die over Thanksgiving.
Two questions remain. First, what was the real reason for the attempt to take down Dave Wick? Second, who gave the order – the DEC, the Governor’s staff, the Governor himself?
These questions may likely never get answered, but this story is not about a fuel spill or the ethics of the LGPC.
This is really a story about an abuse of power by high ranking officials in the Cuomo Administration.
Addendum: The Inspector General has looked at issues involving the LGPC in the past. When former Commissioner Tom Conerty retired last year a big bash was thrown for him on one of the Lake George Steamboat Company boats, Conerty’s long-time employer. The company provided a boat cruise free of charge and an open bar. Patrons paid for their own dinners. As the LGPC executive director, Dave Wick is the chief ethics officer and many groused about the conflicts of interest represented by these gifts. The LGPC has a long history of political conflicts. Several LGPC Commissioners are among the most consistent donors to Betty Little and her staunchest local supporters. Indeed within a few weeks of starting his job at the LGPC, Wick attended a Betty Little fundraiser with Bruce Young. Staff for the Inspector General submitted a letter to the LGPC detailing ways it should be more concerned with political conflicts.
Photo from Dave Wick’s LinkedIn account.