Don’t plan rail trail details in secret

When a town, village or school board holds a budget workshop, it must, by law, announce it publicly, and anyone is welcome to come and watch how the sausage is made, so to speak.

Even if officials don’t let people speak up during the workshops, reserving on-the-record public comment for regular meetings and hearings, it’s still an open process, as it should be. If the people paying the bills with their taxes know, for instance, what kind of haggling went on to sort out specific wants and needs, they will be better informed when they give their feedback at the appropriate time, and when they elect local officials. A better informed electorate makes for better, more democratic government, one that people believe works for them.

So why close the doors when 20 people, chosen by the state government, meet to plan details of a public asset, the trail expected to replace the railroad tracks between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake?

Our reporter, like the rest of the public, has been shut out of three meetings of a “stakeholder group” state officials set up to advise them on details of the rails-to-trails changeover. On the board are representatives of the Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates, Barkeater Trails Alliance, the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism, the Lake Placid Snowmobile Club and villages and towns through which the rail corridor passes. In the room with them are representatives of state agencies such as the Department of Environmental Conservation, Adirondack Park Agency, Olympic Regional Development Authority and Office of General Services. (Editor’s note: An earlier version of this editorial said the New York State Snowmobile Association was represented at the meetings, but NYSSA Trails Coordinator Jim Rolf says it was not invited and did not take part.)

“Last meeting (Sept. 22) we wrapped up with a discussion of the surface materials,” DEC spokesman Dave Winchell said. “This meeting, (on Wednesday) we’re getting down into more entries and exits from the trail. If we have time, we’ll get to bridges and culverts and road crossings as well.”

We don’t have any reason to believe anything nefarious went on at these meetings, but details like those Mr. Winchell mentioned above matter to the masses of people who will use this trail – largely people who live around here. The planning of such things should be done in the public eye. This is a publicly owned travel corridor, and public input is valuable – and the more informed the input, the better.

The state Committee on Open Government told us the meetings don’t need to be open to the public since there is not a majority, or quorum, of any single government agency – never mind the sheer number of government agencies represented at the table. But they could be open – no law prevents that – and they should be, for several reasons: on principle, to engender trust from the public that’s supposed to be served, and to help produce a better trail.

The excuse given for keeping the meetings private is that they were “unwieldy” with so many people involved and might be more so with more participants. But even if they don’t participate, they should be allowed to observe.

The Cuomo administration has shown a strong knee-jerk aversion to transparency. Is this part of that, ordered down even to such a local level? We hope not. We hope people here can open up these meetings.

The state needs the public to buy into this rails-to-trails conversion, which was already controversial, but it isn’t going to get that buy-in if it makes the plans in secret.