At Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial in the United States Senate, his attorney, former Senator Dale Bumpers, observed, “When they say it’s not about the sex … it’s about the sex.” A corollary theory exists when a politician vows to be transparent – even running the most transparent administration in history – because then it’s time to get out the hip boots.
Governor Andrew Cuomo designated David Skorton, President of Cornell University, to chair the New York Racing Association’s Reorganization Board following the state’s takeover of the “old” NYRA last year. At the first meeting of the Board, Skorton announced his decision to “voluntarily” comply with New York’s public records law and open meetings law, and had the Board pass a motion affirming that desire. The new NYRA Board, consisting of 17 members, 12 of whom are appointed by the Governor or legislative leaders, however, is now actually a government agency for purposes of those two laws and must comply with them whether it wants to or not.
When it came time to hire a new CEO, the chair of the Compensation Committee expressed a concern about a government agency paying a salary equivalent to the prior CEO’s, and suggested a bifurcated approach. While a consultant to the Compensation Committee had advised that a salary for a comparable position would be in the range of $600,000 to $1 million, the Committee’s recommendation was for a salary of $300,000 and eligibility for a bonus of $250,000. Chairman Skorton endorsed this approach, assuring the Board members that a bonus would be based on a “real, balanced score card” with milestones. After the NYRA Board decided to hire Chris Kay as its new CEO on June 18, Chairman Skorton in a press statement again referenced the “balanced score card” which contained both quantitative and qualitative “metrics.” He further stated that he wanted to be “very public about this.”
So at Kay’s first press conference at Saratoga last week, he was asked to identify the benchmarks that would be used to measure his performance. He refused. When pressed, Kay told the questioner to ask Chairman Skorton.
It turns out I had already done so, making a request for the scorecard and a copy of Kay’s contract under New York’s public records law. This week I was informed that I would not be given the documents by the deadline set forth in the law, but may get them in another month. While the law does permit extending the deadline for “reasonable circumstances,” there are no valid reasons to withhold documents that are unquestionably public ones and readily available in NYRA’s offices.
Even more troubling than the refusal of NYRA to both follow the law and Skorton’s stated desire to be “very public,” however, is why NYRA would want to withhold them? The most obvious explanation, of course, is that there is something in the documents that would be embarrassing to NYRA. One could also conclude that in the Cuomo Administration – this is a Governor who once risibly said his would be the most transparent in New York history – cares little for the niceties of laws that are supposed to guarantee New Yorkers reasonable access to what their government is doing.
While those are both convenient, and perhaps accurate, explanations, I am puzzled that a NYRA that desperately wants to break from the recent past will not let us know how they will be different. The Cuomo team now fully in charge not only has no track record in racing, but has yet to provide any evidence they have even a remote clue of what they are doing. The Governor has no interest in a signature New York industry, and has admitted having no knowledge about the sport. His pick to head NYRA’s Board has also conceded lacking knowledge (at least at the time he assumed his position). And now the guy running the show can only point to track visits that were more than 40 years ago as his racing background.
So while New York’s horsemen and horsewomen wonder what the future will bring in an economic environment that is increasingly fragile, why won’t NYRA’s leadership tell us what their vision is by releasing the ballyhooed goals of the new CEO? Why won’t they tell existing fans, as well as the much-needed new ones, what they hope to accomplish to make the sport as prominent in this state as it has been in the not-too-distant past?
In his press conference last week, CEO Chris Kay spoke of the re-privatization effort as being his primary concern. He said he had thoughts about attracting more people to the track, particularly focusing on women and young girls. Given that he was barely in to his third week on the job, it is not surprising that he could not be more specific. But he was able to parrot some of the tired tropes about the discredited old NYRA. When he was asked to give a concrete example of how NYRA’s now being “aligned” with state government would result in an improvement going forward, he could not do so. NYRA’s new leaders appear to be operating under a delusion that all they need to do to build the public’s trust and support is to continually denigrate the prior leadership – even though that leadership left almost 15 months ago.
If all NYRA is doing is marking time until yet another governing structure is in place in 2016, it would not only be a colossal waste of time, but a grave disservice to all those whose livelihoods depend on the sport, as well as to a sport in which New York has been a national leader. That’s why it would be nice to know what Chris Kay’s performance goals are.