Since the Adirondack Park Agency’s monthly meetings went virtual, I have patched in to watch the fuzzy images and hear the fuzzy voices of the commissioners, on a feed that has the flavor of convicted felons appearing in court via closed circuit video.
And I’ve thought: This is a leading agency in a leading state in a leading country in the world and this is the best we can do? And the answer is, Yes! It is! Because other agencies, boards and panels are much worse. At least with the APA you can get a vague notion of what they are doing, as opposed to some remote Facebook feeds that are entirely inaudible or, in the case of one local government meeting, was broadcast upside down.
The stress test Covid has placed on ADK technology is a grim reminder that our communications and economic potential — which anymore are one and the same — are not ready for prime time. If a well-heeled state agency cannot get it together, what chance do Adirondack residents in need of education, medicine and jobs have?
But there’s one other thing.
I sympathize and agree with the commissioners, but I would also suggest to them this: The frustration they are feeling over the poor state of communication is exactly the same frustrations the public has felt for years as it has tried to wring facts from the APA or DEC. The state agencies that govern the park — which in all other respects are enlightened, science based and forward thinking — are positively medieval when it comes to transparency.
Thanks to the reporting of the Adirondack Explorer, the public has been treated to two clear cut examples of late. First, some new members of the APA board weren’t even permitted to talk directly to the press, but had to fill out written (and no doubt pre-approved) answers to written questions.
These are our best and brightest, and the state doesn’t trust them to engage in a thoughtful conversation about their pre-existing viewpoints without their words being washed through agency gatekeepers? Who do they look like, Amy Coney Barrett?
The second example is the secret DEC High Peaks Advisory Group that is supposed to be drawing up guidelines that will affect anyone who ever sets a boot in Keene Valley for the rest of time. Every so often the state would release patently useless “minutes” of the meetings, which basically said “The HPAG met. Things were said. Refreshments included apple cider donuts, which members said were pretty good.”
The DEC said the group had to be closed to the public so its members could engage in honest conversation, which is such a stupid argument that it practically drools. It may come as news to the DEC, but it is possible to be honest in public. It should also be obvious that controversial policies, such as hiking permits, are all the more deserving of a public airing before being privately cast in stone and presented for pro forma public hearings.
And more recently, even these feeble dispatches from the HPAG have dropped off the map, even though the group has continued to meet. Pressed on what has been discussed, the DEC said the group has “focused on building upon the interim recommendations,” a statement that, in the words of Tommy Lee Jones, tells us precisely dick.
But this institutional secrecy goes far beyond these public examples. Employees are forbidden to talk to the press without going through “channels” that are time consuming and render timely stories meaningless. Inquiries about a press release come back from the state with even less information than was originally disseminated, and brief, boilerplate responses to important and complex questions seem designed to discourage such inquiries in the first place. To get an answer to the simplest questions it becomes necessary to file freedom of information requests.
So it becomes near impossible to extract any information beyond tweet level, or talk unencumbered to anyone with boots on the ground, such as rangers and land-use planners — the ones who are the most knowledgeable and whose thoughts might be most valuable to public understanding and interest.
The APA board and Advisory Group members, as well as the state agencies themselves, may feel this is not their problem, and maybe it’s not. But here’s the thing: Secrecy is the great de-legitimizer. You may take the most righteous, erudite action imaginable, but if your conclusions were reached behind closed doors people will always be suspicious. And they will be disinclined to follow any rules that are laid down as a result.
State officers worried about their technological connections should be worried about their connections to the public as well.