Thursday, June 27, 2019

The Local Government Club at the Adirondack Park Agency

APA Building in Ray Brook NYThe State Senate gaveled-out its historic 2019 Legislative Session on June 21st without acting on any of the four people that Governor Cuomo had nominated for the Board of the Adirondack Park Agency (APA). These were among dozens of nominees to various state boards that were left unconfirmed, but the message from the State Senate was clear: changes were needed in many of the individuals and slates of nominees submitted by the Governor.

The Governor’s response to the rebuff by the State Senate on APA Board nominations was to go on the attack. Cuomo’s spokesman, Rich Azzopardi, tried to talk about the strengths of the Cuomo nominees but couldn’t get very far, so he fell back to empty superlatives. He said “Our nominees have expertise, they have a love for the region, and to know the North County is to love the North County. We are focused on the best to move the park forward.” Quite an endorsement.

Azzopardi’s most absurd statement though occurred when he disparaged the environmental groups that had called for months for the Governor to nominate a set of candidates to the APA Board with diverse professional backgrounds and areas of expertise; the environmental groups, he claimed, wanted the APA Board to be “their own clubhouse.”

The reality is that Andrew Cuomo has built his own local government clubhouse at the APA that is narrow in its scope and vision. Fully nine years into his reign as Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo has run the APA off the road and into the ditch. The Cuomo APA is at the weakest point in its history. The APA Board has three vacancies, and all but one of the five other remaining appointed Board members are serving expired terms. The Cuomo APA is hamstrung by a weak board, micro-management by the Governor and his staff, and its failure to exert its required checks-and-balances authority over the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) on Forest Preserve matters.

The phrase “you break it, you own it” has become part of the American political lexicon and is an apt description of the APA under Governor Andrew Cuomo. The APA Board is dominated by local government and business interests, which has hampered its ability to meet the major challenges facing the rural communities and wildlands of the Adirondack Park.

This spring, in an effort to strengthen and begin the process of rebuilding the APA, environmental groups called upon the Governor to nominate individuals with diverse professional backgrounds to the APA Board, calling for people with expertise in environmental law, natural or social sciences, or regional planning. Given that there were three vacancies and four expired terms, the Governor had a unique opportunity to remake the APA. It was a given that the Governor would nominate local government officials to some of the APA Board slots, but surely there was also room for other people with a broad range of professional experience. The response from the Governor was to nominate three people from local government and an attorney from Onondaga County who was a former political appointee at the DEC.

The APA Board has 11 members. Three represent state agencies and in Cuomo world that means these are people with zero independence and who are enthusiastic players for Team Cuomo. So chalk up 3 of 11 votes on the APA Board for the Team Cuomo clubhouse.

Then there are five in-Park APA Board members. Over the last nine years the Governor has seen fit to nominate only local government officials or business owners to in-Park Board seats. Cuomo has gladly retained Pataki appointments Bill Thomas, the former Town Supervisor of Johnsburg, and Art Lussi, businessman and resort owner from Lake Placid, both of whom are local government sweethearts. Cuomo’s other in-Park appointments have all been local government leaders, including Barb Rice from Saranac Lake and Dan Wilt from Lake Pleasant, or economic development enthusiasts like Lani Ulrich from Old Forge or Sherman Craig from Wanakena. Ulrich, Craig and Rice have since resigned, but Wilt remains and is expected to serve as the next Chair of the APA. Wilt has been outspoken in his opposition to further land acquisition by the State of New York.

All in-Park appointments have been faithful servants of the Governor and his agenda: weaken environmental controls under the mistaken theory that to do so will somehow improve the local rural economy. The Governor has failed to get serious about Adirondack Park policy for either economic development or management of the public Forest Preserve and instead has bought into the failed politics and community development strategies of Senator Betty Little, the local State Senator who has campaigned her entire career to weaken the APA. So, chalk up another 5 votes on the APA Board for the Team Cuomo clubhouse. That gives Team Cuomo 8 of 11 votes. Even by the fuzzy math that can sometimes dominate Cuomoworld 8 out of 11 is a majority.

There are three APA Board members from outside the Adirondack Park. These positions in the Cuomo years have been characterized by long-term vacancies. Spitzer appointee Dick Booth, a professor at Cornell University, approached the position with independence and grew sharply critical of Cuomo’s management of the APA and was replaced. Cuomo appointee Karen Feldman, who also served as the temporary chair for nearly one year, resigned after many policy and personal slights by the Cuomo staff and a pay dispute. The irony is that Feldman was an enthusiastic supporter of the Cuomo-Little agenda and dutifully voted to roll back environmental controls and weaken environmental protections.

The out-of-Park Board members are the only positions at the APA where any independence of action is tolerated. Two current appointees, John Ernst, owner of the Elk Lake Reserve, and Chad Dawson, retired professor from SUNY-ESF, have approached their time on the APA with integrity and independence. Given that there is one current vacancy among the three out-of-Park Board seats, there are only two independent voices on the APA Board. That’s 2 out of 11.

The APA Board needs greater diversity in the professional experiences and expertise of its members. It’s currently dominated by Board members who come from local government and business interests. There’s a theory in government called “regulatory capture” where a public agency that administers a law is eventually taken over and run by the very interests that it’s supposed to regulate. Think of the Environmental Protection Agency being run by a coal lobbyist under President Trump. The same thing has happened to an APA run by business leaders and local government officials – the regulated are now the regulators.

This spring Governor Cuomo nominated three people, all from local government, for positions as in-Park Board members: Andrea Hogan, Supervisor of the Town of Johnsburg; Mark Hall, former Supervisor of the Town of Fine; and Brian McDonnell, town board member from the Town of Brighton. Hall has long been active with the Adirondack Association of Towns and Village and Local Government Review Board. Along with current Board member Dan Wilt, confirmation of these three nominations would make four of five in-Park Board members locally elected officials. While these three bring different working backgrounds and life experiences to the APA Board, they do not bring expertise in environmental law, science, or regional planning. Individually, each is a qualified local resident and local government official, but as a slate this group fails to provide the professional expertise that will help to rebuild the APA.

The Governor’s outside-the-Park nominee submitted in the last hours of the legislative session was Kenneth Lynch from Onondaga County. Lynch, an attorney, was a political appointee at the DEC. There are already three state agency votes on the APA Board, and many saw Lynch as a de facto fourth state agency vote given his close ties to DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos. Lynch’s time at the DEC was noteworthy for the Department’s subversion of longstanding New York State environmental laws in the Adirondacks. I think it’s fair to say that Lynch would be right at home on the bench in the Team Cuomo clubhouse.

Many in the State Senate were left scratching their heads at why the Governor did not seek to replace Art Lussi, who has been on the APA for 13 years and was appointed by Governor Pataki. Lussi also serves on the Board of the Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA), which many see as a conflict of interest. Most significantly, Lussi also forced through the APA a controversial set of variances for his family camp on Lake Placid. It’s expected that the ORDA conflicts and his variances will be scrutinized in any State Senate confirmation. The new State Senate plans to interview all people who are nominated by the Governor, which provides an opportunity to scrutinize their records. This is a marked departure from past practice of approving the Governor’s nominees in absentia.

Given that there are three vacancies on the APA Board and that by the end of June four of the five current members will be serving in expired terms, Governor Cuomo has an opportunity to functionally reboot the APA and put in place Board members who could provide the leadership nucleus to rebuild and strengthen the APA.

This is a major moment for the Governor and the APA. The Governor has built strong relationships with local government leaders across the Adirondacks during the last nine years. The Governor has delivered on any number of objectives: expanding motorized recreational uses on the Forest Preserve; sharply curtailing enforcement at the APA; ending public hearings for private land developments by the APA; weakening the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan; prioritizing the building of road-like snowmobile trails on the Forest Preserve while deferring maintenance on hiking trails; spending over $10 million to build the new Frontier Town campground; massively expanding ORDA facilities; and instructing state agencies to lobby on behalf of a mining company to help it obtain Wilderness lands; among many others.

But the greatest prize the Governor has delivered to local government leaders has been control of the Adirondack Park Agency.

Photo of APA Building in Ray Brook NY.

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Peter Bauer is the Executive Director of Protect the Adirondacks.

He has been working in various capacities on Adirondack Park environmental issues since the mid-1980s, including stints as the Executive Director of the Residents' Committee to Protect the Adirondacks and FUND for Lake George as well as on the staff of the Commission on the Adirondacks in the Twenty-First Century. He also worked at Adirondack Life Magazine. He served as Chair of the Town of Lake George Zoning Board of Appeals and has served on numerous advisory boards for management of the Adirondack Park and Forest Preserve.

Peter lives in Blue Mountain Lake with his wife and two children, enjoys a wide variety of outdoor recreational activities throughout the Adirondacks, and is a member of the Blue Mountain Lake volunteer fire department.

Follow Protect the Adirondacks on Facebook and Twitter.




17 Responses

  1. Todd Eastman says:

    Good summary.

    Mario would be rolling in his grave to see the way his son plays the Adirondack Park to grow his red creds.

  2. Hope says:

    It’s a very small community, the Adirondacks, and it’s not a bad thing that local government officials are nominated to the APA board. Many of those folks are the spokespeople for their communities and also have a love for the Adirondacks and want to see it flourish. Disparaging the current remaining APA members is low blow to these folks who serve with dignity and volunteer a great deal of their time to the position. Just because the environmental community can’t seem to work with the local governments and communities to come up with nominations that will not just rubber stamp emperor Peter Bauer’s agenda but be thoughtful of both the environment and the people living in the Adirondacks. Peter’s and others agenda is just a giant HOA (Home Owners Association) for the Park with him as that pesky HOA president that makes you paint your mailbox green (and not just any green, it must be Adirondack Green).

  3. scotty says:

    I’m irked by the pitch suggesting that anyone associated with local government is bad, incompetent, and comes with the goal of ruining the Park. That’s ridiculous, offensive and most importantly simply not true..

    • John Warren says:

      Where does it say that? Certainly not here:

      “While these three bring different working backgrounds and life experiences to the APA Board, they do not bring expertise in environmental law, science, or regional planning. Individually, each is a qualified local resident and local government official, but as a slate this group fails to provide the professional expertise that will help to rebuild the APA.”

      • Chris Anderson says:

        Wow. Did you read the same article? “Local government” is a pejorative in this screed. Here’s two, “The reality is that Andrew Cuomo has built his own local government clubhouse at the APA that is narrow in its scope and vision” and “The APA Board is dominated by local government….” Let’s just skip over where Peter refers to John Lyman Ernst, a private investment banker, as a local lodge owner. This author is all about cherry-picking and slippery slopes.

  4. Dennis Farrar says:

    Unless I’m mistaken, Mark Hall of Fine is an Environmental Engineer with many years of experience. Why was he characterized as a local official with no other relevant experience.

  5. Boreas says:

    From the APA website:

    “Our Mission

    The mission of the APA is to protect the public and private natural resources of the Adirondack Park through the exercise of the powers and duties provided by the Adirondack Park Agency Act, the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan, the NYS Freshwater Wetlands Act and the NYS Wild, Scenic, and Recreational Rivers System Act.”

    I don’t see much about local government and communities being paramount here – rather mostly PROTECTION concerns for BOTH public and private NATURAL RESOURCES. Commenters here are often asking for balance – shouldn’t the board be at least half green?

    • Paul says:

      The APA act is basically a land use development plan for the Adirondack park. It seems to me that local government and the communities would be paramount here.

      The last sentence of the purpose of the Act:

      “provides appropriate regulatory responsibilities for the agency and the local governments of the park and seeks to achieve sound local land use planning throughout the park”

      • Boreas says:

        Paul,

        I think the key word here is “local”. All of the Park land lies within numerous local, political boundaries. If, as you say, local communities are indeed paramount, then I don’t see a need for the APA as a further promoter of development. Abolish it and let the communities simply do as they wish – like the rest of the state. But I saw the APA as a guard against this – ensuring any development was considered in the light of an overall plan for the Park. This is their protection responsibility. But a consistent protection policy is unlikely if the philosophy of the APA continually changes while blowing in the political wind. When consistency is missing, the APA will always be under attack.

  6. Big Burly says:

    In reading this somewhat akin to an op-ed, it occurred to me that the author may be asking that Commissioners take on a role that rightfully ought to be executed by professional staff, rather than political appointees — no matter their backgrounds. Having observed Messrs Fine and McDonnell in action over the years, a compelling trait each brings to the APA is the ability to get things done, working with disparate interests to get a workable solution. As a very interested observer of the APA and its efforts, and knowing many of past and current professional staff and Commissioners, it will be desirable IMO to focus on getting our Gov to identify and nominate people with experience in helping organizations like the APA function in a strategic business-like manner in compliance with statute and regulation. Hire professional staff to achieve the outcomes espoused by the author … expertise in environmental law, natural or social sciences, or regional planning. Expertise that will improve the less than desirable actions by the DEC in recent years.

    • Boreas says:

      Big Burly,

      Makes sense to me. But in my experience with employment, if I don’t do what I am told to do by my boss, I don’t have the job long. I guess it would ultimately matter who the boss is. I suppose the idea behind appointments is that they would at least give the illusion of acting independently. Whether employed or appointed, there needs to be balance overall.

      Perhaps another way to approach this would be to have a balanced commission giving recommendations to a single individual (elected by all NYS citizens) who would make the final decisions. I wouldn’t want to be that person…

  7. Good Summary.

    I know both Ken and Brian. Both, individually, are qualified. But I agree that the overall slate lacks diversity in expertise, independence, and balance.

  8. Todd Eastman says:

    From the APA intro:

    “Our Mission
    The mission of the APA is to protect the public and private natural resources of the Adirondack Park through the exercise of the powers and duties provided by the Adirondack Park Agency Act, the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan, the NYS Freshwater Wetlands Act and the NYS Wild, Scenic, and Recreational Rivers System Act.

    Core Services
    Determine APA jurisdiction, Review proposed land use and development projects, Determine State Land Master Plan compliance, Provide local planning assistance to Adirondack Park communities, delineate wetlands, provide engineering services, GIS services, review on-site wastewater treatment systems and conduct stormwater analysis.

    Who We Serve
    The APA works to balance the complementary needs of all the people of the State for the preservation of the Adirondack Parks natural resources and open space character with the needs of the Adirondack

    Parks permanent, seasonal and transient populations for growth and service areas, employment, and a strong diversified economic base.”

    Does the current APA board help the agency meet these descriptions?

    • Hope says:

      It is the staff that does all of that work. It is the staff that makes the requisite recommendations to the board for approval. The commissioners job is to review, discuss, approve, deny or send back for revisions. Whether you like it or not, the Governor gets to appoint the commissioners.

      • Todd Eastman says:

        “Whether you like it or not, the Governor gets to appoint the commissioners.”

        But the Governor does have an obligation to seat a board to direct and oversee the staff’s activities.

        Unfilled seats and temporary positions do not meet that requirement.

    • Boreas says:

      “Does the current APA board help the agency meet these descriptions?”

      At full staffing, most likely. Today, not so much.

  9. Peter Bauer says:

    There is a fix here. The Governor could take some steps towards a more balanced APA Board. If he holds with his three local government officials he could then use the other seats for independent people with environmental law, science and regional planning backgrounds. There’s a vacancy for an outside the Park seat and two other in-Park seats are expired. That would be a 50-50 deal. Even with a balanced 50-50 group of nominees the Governor is still in control because he controls the three state agency votes. Unfortunately, the Governor’s nomination slate was true to form for how Andrew Cuomo has approached state agencies. He wants maximum control and minimal dissent. Hence, in Cuomoworld there is no room for governing ideals like “balance” and “independence” and leaders who “vote their conscience.”

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