Scrutiny of the state Adirondack Park Agency is normal, but it's been coming heavily in recent weeks, and from various sides - as well it should.
Some people call for a shift in focus, others for a staff overhaul, others for getting rid of the agency altogether. We don't think any of those things would be an improvement. What the APA needs is structural reform.
We don't think the problem is this agency's very existence, as old-time anti-APA'ers still say, or its employees, as Essex farmer Sandy Lewis claims. The problem is that the agency does not properly represent the people or have a separation of powers to ensure checks and balances. These two aspects are essential to the American way of governing, as outlined by founding father John Adams and firmly established by the Constitution. Without these aspects, the APA cannot have the consent of the governed. They will naturally resist it. And they do.
Specifically, the APA needs three things, as we stated in a series of editorials in February 2010:
1. It should no longer act as police, prosecutor, judge and jury. Its enforcement officers, when they find violations, should simply write tickets for local courts.
2. It should no longer be able to adopt its own rules. Draft them, yes, but if its board approves a new rule for something like the pitch of boathouse roofs, that rule should not take effect unless the state Legislature approves it, too.
3. Its Park-resident commissioners - of which the chairman should be one by law rather than simply tradition - should be directly elected by voters in towns lying at least partly within the Adirondack Park.
The latest Adirondack Life magazine, which we received this week, contains an article by Brian Mann advocating for the APA to shift its focus from environment to economy. He says the mission of saving the Adirondacks' environment has mostly been accomplished, that the Forest Preserve is bigger than ever but census figures show communities are in peril and could soon be "reduced to a patchwork of ghost towns and hollow vacation resorts." He thinks the new mission in this great experiment should be "saving our towns."
John Warren, on his Adirondack Almanack blog, shot back on Tuesday "to say that your premise is all wrong." He believes our towns' economic problems, like those outside the Blue Line, are due to a growing wealth gap, plus health care and college costs bleeding families dry:
"Our health care system sucks away a large percentage of our low wages during our working years and requires our poverty and reliance on Medicaid at the end of life," Mr. Warren wrote. "Young people no longer inherit land or homes built by their parents and grandparents and upon which they previously 'got a leg up'; they are sold off in the spend-down to Medicaid. ... In a perverse modern peonage system, student loan debts derail job creation and investment in favor of wage slavery required to repay the costs associated with getting a job.
"Our economic problems won't be solved, as you argue, by reinventing the Adirondack Park Agency into another economic development corporation."
Amen. But while the APA probably doesn't need a new mission, it does need changes.
Sadly, instead of recognizing that, APA commissioners have launched a campaign to show that its critics don't know what they're talking about.
At the first meeting of the APA board's new Public Awareness and Communications Committee last month, committee Chairman William Valentino said "set the record straight" three times in a row:
"I think what the committee's trying to find is a different way to set the record straight. I think it's important to set the record straight because it's in the public interest to set the record straight."
Sounds like the record's skipping.
Yes, some of the APA blasting we hear is misinformed, but it's mostly just people's opinions. Instead of ignoring or countering that criticism, APA commissioners need to do a better job of listening to it and learning from the best of it. They would if they relied on elections to keep their jobs.
One more change needs to happen, not to the APA but to other state bureaucracies. The problem is evident in Gov. Andrew Cuomo's recent announcement of new Empire State Development regions: Once again, the Adirondack Park is chopped up into multiple regions. It needs its own region, and not only for ESD but for the Department of Environmental Conservation and perhaps other state departments as well.
Unlike pretty much every other New York region of the state - the fuzzy-boundaried Southern Tier, Central New York or Mohawk Valley, for instance - the Adirondack Park has a clear line around it and, more importantly, different rules and priorities for economics, tourism and the environment. It's nonsensical to ignore such an obvious reality in trying to help business and the environment.
The APA is the only government agency that currently recognizes the Blue Line in a functional way, but even it doesn't really represent the people within.