The opportunity before North Elba, ORDA

Town of North Elba and state Olympic Regional Development Authority leaders have failed to renegotiate an operational agreement for at least 17 years, potentially violating the Rule Against Perpetuities and putting both in a legally-tenuous situation in a variety of ways. The good news: This is a mistake that can — and must — be remedied.

This agreement, which authorizes ORDA to manage the town’s Olympic venues, has been expired since at least 2007, Enterprise Staff Writer Sydney Emerson reported this week. Despite that, ORDA has continued to manage the venues. For that service, the town has continued to pay ORDA each year. Since 2005, these payments have totaled $12.6 million in local taxpayer money and an additional $1.95 million in state grant funding. The town’s annual payment amounts have varied, despite the payment rate enshrined in the state law that established ORDA — Title 28 — requiring a much higher contribution by the town.

It’s clear that town officials, concerned about the burden on taxpayers, had good intentions in pushing to reduce the town’s financial contributions to ORDA. But it’s startling that there seems to not be much of a paper trail as the town has renegotiated its annual payments. How did this happen? The town’s budget officer told the Enterprise that the town and ORDA reached a “verbal agreement” in 2013 to adjust its payment rate, and in 2022, the rate was lowered again. And as in 2013, this change was made with seemingly little on paper.

The town has also failed to sustain and support ORDA’s Community Advisory Panel, which, according to state law, is meant to “advise and assist” ORDA, among other responsibilities. The CAP — a mechanism through which 19 people, including 10 appointed by the Lake Placid Sports Council who would presumably be locals — would be able to have a say in ORDA operations and funding — is essentially a layer of local accountability and input that has been missing for several years. It has gone defunct twice: Once around 1998 and again in 2016.

ORDA does not operate in a vacuum, and its operations should not be treated as private. It has taken in more than half a billion dollars in state funding over the past several years alone. ORDA employs 597 full-time employees, according to its most recent budget, in addition to some 1,400 part-time staff as of 2020, according to a economic impact study prepared for ORDA. As ORDA and town officials have touted over and over, ORDA’s impact on this region is immense. Let’s not forget that ORDA is a state authority and is not immune from public scrutiny. It should not be not excepted from common-sense accountability measures — such as advisement by a CAP, which the state Legislature required when it established ORDA in 1981.

To make this whole situation worse, in starting to renegotiate a new agreement, the North Elba Town Council appears to have violated the state’s Open Meeting Law on Feb. 1, when three members of the council met with ORDA’s CEO and board of directors chairman without notifying the public properly.

This is all symbolic of how things sometimes work in Lake Placid: Handshake deals between a closed circuit of decision-makers, with the public largely left out of it until the last minute — or until whistleblowers and Enterprise reporters bring the information to light. (That’s another reason to subscribe to this newspaper and support local journalism.)

Lake Placid has much to be proud of, having hosted two Olympic Winter Games and establishing itself as a launching pad for incredible athletes. Economically, Lake Placid is much more prosperous than many other North Country villages. But we’ve said it before: This sort of closed-circuit decision-making over the years — or the appearance of such — is one of a multitude of reasons why many residents feel alienated and unheard. That’s evident from the lack of public involvement at nearly every town board meeting, village board meeting and public hearing. It’s true that the town isn’t legally required to involve the public in this case, and that’s not to say that there are not efforts by the town to be more transparent — to their credit, town officials do try to answer questions from the public to the best of their abilities. But real transparency means more than following what’s required by the state’s lackluster government transparency laws and nothing more.

Reporting by Emerson this week made clear that for years, leaders at the town and ORDA have not seen renegotiating this agreement as a priority. Former and current town supervisors say that the town and ORDA have historically had a good relationship, and that’s true. It would probably be difficult for the relationship to sour in any significant way; ultimately, the town needs ORDA to manage its venues and without those venues, ORDA would not need to exist in the same form it does today. It’s true that neither are very likely to try to cut those ties. Looking at the bigger picture, both town and ORDA officials are constantly juggling a variety of high-stakes issues, and one can imagine how an agreement like this — which mirrors what’s already enshrined in state law in many ways — could fall by the wayside for some time. But setting this aside for more than a decade is not a good look, to say the least.

Ultimately, this is about more than getting an agreement on paper. This is about taking care to protect the town’s taxpayers and ORDA employees beyond a shadow of a doubt. It’s about taking the time to make sure the agreement — and, if necessary, state law — meets taxpayers’ needs today. Both the town and ORDA have the resources and expertise at their disposal to make these things happen.

We think town Supervisor Derek Doty’s request that North Elba residents get certain benefits, such as reduced admission to ORDA venues, is a great idea. But as town and ORDA officials craft a new operational agreement, we hope that both go further and truly keep residents and ORDA employees, transparency and accountability at the forefront of their minds. Let this be the end to more than a decade of inaction, yes, but let this also be an opportunity to welcome the public in and restore some faith in both ORDA and the town that may have been lost.


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