The New York Racing Association has been without a permanent CEO for more than 13 months and the new Reorganization Board did not even begin a search for a replacement until 4 months ago, but they were able to decide unanimously on a new CEO in a mere 8 minutes. The vote selecting Christopher Kay, an unemployed former executive, took place at the Board’s meeting on June 18.
The NYRA Board hired a search firm that, according to its representative at the meeting, conducted an international search that was able to narrow a field warranting “serious consideration” to a mere 100 candidates in a matter of weeks. The Board’s committee charged with coming up with a candidate made its report in a closed-door Executive Session during the June 10 meeting. While that session lasted 54 minutes, there was another item on the agenda.
While I would like to think that Board members spent more than an hour considering the merits of this appointment, one aspect I find troubling is that there was no effort at the public portion of the Board to justify the selection. The NYRA Board, because it is an agency under the control of state government, is required by law to conduct its affairs in compliance with New York’s Open Meetings Law. While it is permissible to go into a closed-door session to discuss aspects of certain employment matters, the NYRA Board apparently viewed its obligation to operate in public as being limited to a bare recital of aspects of Kay’s resume.
I don’t raise this because of a desire to nitpick NYRA’s compliance with the spirit of the Open Meetings Law, but because I think it reflects an attitude that public perception – and, more significantly, securing public approval for an important decision – is not of sufficient moment for this Board to spend more than a few minutes explaining their thinking.
Christopher Kay may turn out to be an outstanding leader for NYRA, and I hope he is. However, there is nothing that was offered at the public portion of the Board meeting to give me any reason to think so. His background is one that does not exactly distinguish him from any of hundreds of other lawyers who worked in both the private and non-profit sectors. He also does not have a background in racing. (I found his statement that he fell in “love” with the sport by going every summer to Cahokia Downs – an oval that closed its doors in 1979 – as somewhat cringe worthy if that was his last visit to a track. )
I do not think a racing background is a sine qua non for NYRA’s CEO, although Kay’s appointment completes a rather unsettling trifecta with a Governor and Board Chairman who have each acknowledged lacking familiarity with the sport and business. What is important, however, is that any CEO surrounds himself with knowledgeable and committed staff, and that he be willing to work as an independent figure in the industry and in the New York environment.
There are already indications, however, that Kay was not selected because he is going to be a forceful and independent voice for New York racing. In comments after the Board meeting, Chairman David Skorton emphasized the importance of cooperating with the state government. He described unidentified past problems as caused not by a “lack of racing savvy, but because of a lack of government savvy.” He heralded Kay as someone who would make the connection in “the public-private partnership as opposed to the public-private war.” In this not so thinly-veiled attack on former CEO Charles Hayward, Skorton is sending the message that Kay is a guy who will not be challenging the Governor’s agenda – whatever that may turn out to be.
Unfortunately, Skorton’s base of authority clearly resides on the second floor in the Albany Capitol, and not with the horsemen, breeders and fans who are so crucial to New York’s justifiably achieved ranking as the best racing jurisdiction in the nation. Having disagreements with those in positions of power in government is not necessarily a bad thing. A Board of Directors has a fiduciary responsibility to its charter and to its base – which in this case is the taxpayers of New York in addition to those horsemen, breeders and fans. There may be times when that fiduciary responsibility requires a responsible and independent Board to disagree with the Governor so as to further the interests of New York’s racing. I suspect that the real transgression that led to the termination of Hayward last year had nothing to do with an oversight on takeout rates, but with the reality that he was not afraid to stand up to the government to protect the interests of the New York racing community. If we can end up saying the same about Chris Kay, then he will prove to be an excellent selection.