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Shapiro ousted from chamber board

SARANAC LAKE – A village trustee and local bike company owner says he was ousted from the Saranac Lake Area Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors because he reported alleged safety violations by Rail Explorers.

New chamber President Bob Bayruns didn’t deny that’s why Rich Shapiro, the chamber’s former president, was voted off the board last week, but he said it had more to do with “differing organizational visions.”

Shapiro, who owns Gear-to-Go Tandems, said his removal dates to July 28 when his wife, Lindy Ellis, was driving on Broadway, near the railroad crossing by Aubuchon Hardware that Rail Explorers crosses on its rail bike excursions between Saranac Lake and Lake Clear.

Ellis didn’t see any flaggers stopping traffic when a wave of rail bikes crossed the road, Shapiro said.

“That seemed like a pretty blatant safety issue, so we reported it to (the state Department of Transportation),” Shapiro said Wednesday.

The complaint to DOT specified two times when flaggers allegedly weren’t in place, just before 9 a.m. and again at 1 p.m., according to Rail Explorers co-owner Mary Joy Lu. She said she believes her company had the necessary flaggers there that day.

“There is absolutely NO circumstance in which our rail bikes would even attempt to cross a busy road such as Route 86 without first having our flaggers in place,” Lu wrote in an email. “The probability of this happening during a tour, with paying customers on board is even more unlikely.”

Lu said she would reach out to customers on the rides that day and see if she could find “photographic or video evidence showing the flaggers in place.”

Regardlesss, word of Shapiro’s complaint eventually reached the chamber “and the chamber decided reporting a safety violation was not good for business, so I was removed from the chamber board,” Shapiro said.

Shapiro said he was first asked to resign but he refused and told the board to put it to a vote. In what he says was a 6-3 vote by secret ballot, he was kicked off the board.

“I thought it was a very bad message to send out, that reporting a safety violation can get you dismissed from a board,” Shapiro said. “I actually read something to them at the meeting about whistleblowers. If I had been an employee of Rail Explorers making that complaint, I’d be protected as a whistleblower.”

Despite his departure from the board, Shapiro said he’s still a chamber member.

“I actually asked them, ‘If what I did was so egregious, why don’t you kick me out of the chamber?'” he said. “They said they still valued me as a member.”

Bayruns, who took over as chamber board president in June, initially declined to comment Wednesday when asked about Shapiro’s removal from the board. He later emailed a statement to the Enterprise that said the decision stems from “differing organizational visions between Mr. Shapiro and the chamber staff and board members.

“We thank Mr. Shapiro for his immense contributions to the chamber and the Saranac Lake community as a whole.”

In a follow-up phone call, the Enterprise asked Bayruns if Shapiro’s complaint about Rail Explorers prompted the vote to remove him.

“It’s more than one issue,” Bayruns said, declining to elaborate and referring the newspaper back to his original statement.

Shapiro’s complaint, and the spat surrounding his departure, could be seen as the latest flare-up in the seemingly endless rail-trail debate. Shapiro, whose business sells tandem bikes, has been a vocal supporter of the state’s plan to remove the railroad tracks from Lake Placid to Tupper Lake and replace them with a recreational trail for bicycling, hiking, cross-country skiing and snowmobiling. He believes it will draw new tourists and be a boon to the village economy. (Editor’s note: An earlier version of this paragraph said Shapiro has acknowledged the recreational trail could be good for his business; he said Friday he has not said that.)

On the other side, removal of the rails would end Rail Explorers seasonal operation between Saranac Lake and Clear, as well as that of the Adirondack Scenic Railroad, which runs summer tourist trains between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake. The two companies and other rail advocates have pushed the state to keep the tracks in place. ASR’s parent organization, the Adirondack Railway Preservation Society, has filed a lawsuit challenging the state’s decision.

Lu said Shapiro’s complaint “could be interpreted as a way to damage Rail Explorers’ operation, if not shut us down completely.

“Observance of correct safety procedures is a condition of the permit between Rail Explorers and DOT and a violation as serious as the ones described could have severe consequences for the company’s continued operations in Saranac Lake,” she wrote.

Chamber Executive Director Johnny Muldowney declined to comment on Shapiro’s ousting from the board, but he said his organization has toed the line when it comes to the rail-trail debate.

“We don’t have any opinion on that,” he said. “We can’t speak for everybody because different members fall on either side of the fence on that, so we’re steering clear of it.”

Shapiro had been president of the chamber board from June of last year to this past June, when he stepped down but remained on the board. Bayruns was elected the new chamber president that same month, but the chamber didn’t announce it until issuing a press release Wednesday.

Shapiro and Bayruns were two of four candidates who ran for a pair of village trustee seats earlier this year. Shapiro and incumbent Trustee Paul Van Cott were elected, defeating Bayruns and Andrew Wright.