The 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.