Concern mounts as APA faces year without full board
RAY BROOK — The state Senate session ended last week with four nominees to the state Adirondack Park Agency board left in limbo, and while local government and environmental groups remain at odds, everyone seems to agree that the APA needs a full collection of board members.
The APA board consists of 11 voting members — one designee each from the state departments of Environmental Conservation, State and Economic Development, plus eight commissioners appointed by the governor and approved by the Senate.
Currently, just two APA board members are serving on valid terms, and one of those, Daniel Wilt, will have his term end on Sunday. Chad Dawson’s term is valid until the end of June next year. Art Lussi and John Ernst have been serving on expired terms for two years. APA board members are allowed to continue to serve after their term ends, until the governor reappoints or dismisses them or they resign.
With seven openings on the board — including the chair — Gov. Andrew Cuomo only submitted four names to the Senate’s Environmental Conservation Committee: MAC’s Canoe Livery owner and Brighton town Councilman Brian McDonnell, former town of Fine Supervisor Mark Hall, Johnsburg town Supervisor Andrea Hogan and Onondaga County’s Ken Lynch, a retired DEC lawyer. A spokesman for the governor said last week that Ernst, Lussi and Wilt are expected to keep serving on expired terms, without being reappointed.
The agency has been without a chairperson since acting chair Karen Feldman resigned in May over a pay dispute. She had replaced former chair Sherman Craig, who retired in the summer of 2018. The governor’s nominations did not say who would be chair.
All four of the governor’s nominees were on a list submitted by the Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages, as confirmed this week by AATV board member Shaun Gillilland — also supervisor of the town of Willsboro and chair of the Essex County Board of Supervisors. None of the four was among the names submitted by the Adirondack Council environmental group, Council spokesman John Sheehan said. Sheehan didn’t share their whole list but said person they recommended was Neil Woodworth, a lawyer who is retiring as director of the Adirondack Mountain Club. Green groups have said the APA needs more board members with environmental science, planning and law backgrounds.
Many Adirondack town supervisors and village mayors have voiced support for the Democratic governor’s nominees and frustration with the state Senate’s new Democratic majority for not confirming them, especially Sen. Todd Kaminsky of Long Island, who chairs the Senate Environmental Conservation Committee and has power to block legislation.
While New York’s Democratic governor is siding with local government on APA board picks, Kaminsky paid special attention to environmental groups, according to Sheehan.
“Kaminsky was very interested in what all four of the environmental organizations who represent the Adirondacks had to say, and consulted with us about the nominees,” Sheehan said. “We felt the group was not adequate, although all four individuals were people we could support. We had no objection to any of the four individuals proposed.”
Sheehan said the Adirondacks’ four main green groups — the Council, Adirondack Mountain Club, Protect the Adirondacks and Adirondack Wild — opposed the slate because only four people were nominated. He said the Council wanted to see at least six.
“Leaving people to serve on expired terms puts them in the position of serving at the pleasure of the governor, which is not how the Park Agency board was designed,” he said. “They are in a position of having to worry about whether they get renominated. … One of the things that a full slate of candidates would provide is a board that is relatively free of political influence.”
What if the governor had nominated four but included some of the Council’s recommendations?
“It would have made it harder to say no, but I think we were still pretty resolute that we wanted at least six names — the complete picture of what the board was going to look like in the year ahead,” Sheehan said.
So why support blocking the confirmation, knowing that would leave the APA board depleted? Sheehan said the upside is that the board will now have to pay more attention to Dawson, its leading environmentalist, to get votes passed, since it is required to have a six-vote majority regardless of how many board members it actually has at any given time.
“We’re hoping that will translate into Mr. Dawson having more influence in the coming year,” Sheehan said. “But our preference would have been for a full slate of qualified people who can conduct business as it was meant to be done under the statute.”
Former APA chair Craig said he supported all four people the governor put forward but added that a depleted board is in no one’s interest.
“My main concern is that the APA, right now, is down so many members,” Craig said. “In order for the APA to work well, it needs diverse opinions and people willing to share them and debate them.
“When I read the names of the nominees, I felt that they were appropriate and would add a great deal to that board. I felt that they were very, very good and appropriate nominations.”
Now the APA is likely to be without new blood until the 2020 legislative session.
“My base concern is that board doesn’t have enough people on it to truly massage some of those decisions and have reasonable debate,” Craig said. “There’s not a legal issue here. It can function, but my point is it can’t function as well as if they had a full agency board and a chairman who is able to make sure all of the members have their questions answered, that the information from the staff is adequate.”
The Essex County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution on the floor of its meeting this week, saying, “All these open seats and expired terms are causing undue hardship to residents and the economies of the towns.” The county board blamed environmental groups for the holdup.
AATV President Matt Simpson said he was disappointed in the lack of appointments and said it leaves the APA weakened.
“These appointments were critical to the continuity of the Adirondack Park Agency,” he said. “We’re really disappointed that they did not act on those nominees that were presented by the governor.
“I think the governor was doing what he had to do. In a perfect world, we’d have a full slate. I don’t know why that didn’t happen. Obviously, the more people, the better. I think they can function, (but) it’s not ideal.
“We found ourselves working very hard to find nominees,” he continued. “It’s a lengthy process, and I don’t think this process that’s going on right now will be very conducive to finding other people who want to step up. Unfortunately, this isn’t a good ending, in my opinion. This isn’t a good outcome.
“The APA, it’s fragile right now.”
Jerry Delaney, who serves as a town of Saranac councilman and head of the Local Government Review Board, which has a non-voting seat at the APA table, said his main concern is how the lack of board members will affect the citizens of the Adirondacks.
“My concern was, and still is, that those four vacant seats need to be filled,” Delaney said. “Right now, you’re one bad accident or one serious health condition away from a supermajority, and without that supermajority, there’s some actions that can’t be taken by the APA.
“If there’s an appeal to a (APA) decision, you have to have a supermajority. And quite truthfully, with only having eight members serving, you set yourself up for one of those (appeals) because you don’t have the full board there.
“There’s nothing on the horizon, but the actual process set forth in law is in jeopardy. I will say that my assumption was that the governor was going to put forth a full slate. And finding out that he didn’t put out a full slate, my instant thought is that … perhaps four names was enough.
“I’m concerned. Illness and accidents don’t care about the appointment process. I can say that I am disappointed that it worked out this way, just because the people that will lose if something happens is the people of the park. They deserve their representation on that board. Even if it’s just for one year, it’s going to be a loss to the park to not have those people on that board.”
Managing Editor Peter Crowley and Staff Writer Elizabeth Izzo contributed to this report.